The okra renaissance, the outcast vegetable is back in style

by Sarah on July 17, 2011

okra

Okra

“Ewwwww!” was my primal reaction to the thick gooey slime that covered my knife.  All I had done was slice a few okras and it spewed more muck than imaginable. This was the revolting aftermath of a slug migration and surely not food. Okra is eschewed for more well-behaved vegetables; cucumbers, tomatoes even Brussels sprouts. It makes calf foot jelly look like an all time favorite. Clearly this is not a vegetable to present to guests unless you don’t want them to come back.

My initial reaction was juvenile and short lived but all too common even among worldly sophisticates. It is a vegetable that makes grown men cringe.  According to psychologist Dr. Yolanda Martins of Flinders University the texture of a food, more than its source, is a major reason why some foods are rejected. The only ones immune are those who have been eating it from childhood.

Okra has a prestigious if somewhat convoluted history, believed to be indigenous to Western Africa where it slowly spread to other parts of the world. It was introduced to the United States during the slave trade and today African Americans are still the biggest consumers of gumbo, as okra is known in Swahili. What would good ol’ southern cooking be without it?

Far away, and by another name the Egyptians enjoy their bamya during the sultry summer days. The crop acclimatized well throughout the Levant and is an integral part of their cuisine, eaten with tomato sauce or added to meat stews. It has traveled to India, Pakistan and Malaysia where it has become integrated into the local cooking culture.

okra at the market

Okra at the Tiberias Outdoor Market

In Israel okra is a seasonal crop, available during the warmer months and appearing alongside watermelon and grapes. At the outdoor markets, they are sold in little plastic baskets like strawberries or dumped haphazardly in large piles for housewives to sift through. Deft hands quickly select only the smaller, less fibrous pods, skipping over bruised and discolored fruit.

They are intent and serious but when I ask for a recipe faces light up in animation, “If you don’t like the slime then fry them quickly in olive oil” says one. Another prefers to “boil in lemon juice or citric acid. After that you can store them in the freezer so you have bamya all year round”.

Okra’s viscosity is attributed to the water soluble polysaccharides molecules found in its cell walls. This characteristic can be enhanced or reduced by different methods of preparation. For some, frying and short cooking times keep the vegetable’s gooey consistency to acceptable levels. The more hardcore simmer them slowly with meat or vegetables, a method popular in Africa, Levant and America’s south to produce thick hearty soups and stews.

Like other species from the mallow family, such as hibiscus or mloukhia it is a drought resistant and grows best in subtropical climates. While it is grown mainly for its edible fruit, fibers have been extracted from the plant to produce paper and rope.

Recent scientific research has shown that okra reduces insulin sensitivity and may be beneficial for those suffering from diabetes. It is also an ingredient in beauty creams, with preliminary tests supporting claims that it has rejuvenating qualities on the skin.

Okra may have a long list of positive qualities, high in fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, but if it’s revolting these advantages go to waste. Fortunately, perceptions can be reshaped. Imagine a cookout with good friends and family, there’s fun bantering and laughter. Someone offers you okra and you taste it (since it would be rude to turn around and run) and it’s not that bad… The association with the vegetable changes into something pleasant. It can happen, all you have to do is take the first bite.

okra, kubbeh, kubba

Okra Kubba, A Middle Eastern Gumbo Recipe

For the soup:

1 large onion, chopped

3/4 head of garlic, separated into cloves, peeled and cut into slices

4 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or grated, peel discarded)

100 grams tomato paste (about 6 tablespoons)

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

Salt/pepper

Juice of one lemon

1/4 cup mint leaves, chopped

1/4 cup celery leaves, chopped

3-4 tablespoons parley

1 tablespoon sugar

12 cups chicken broth

3 cups fresh or frozen okra, cleaned, tops removed and boiled for 2-3 minutes with citric acid to soften

Filling

Meat filling
300 grams ground meat (traditionally mince by hand)
½ onion, minced
25 grams (1/4 cup) finely chopped celery and mint leaves

Filling
Combine all the ingredients for the filling. Mix well.

Shell
2 cups semolina flour
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients until a pliable dough is formed.
The dough tends to dry out quickly so it best to do one cup at a time. When using uncooked meat it is easier to make the kubba when the dough is more on the soft side (although these tend to break more easily)

Soup
Fry onion only until translucent.
Add the tomato paste and spices and fry to release the flavor. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock and cook for about 40 minutes or until the tomatoes have blended into the stock. Add the sugar, lemon juice and herbs. Turn off the heat. Before the kubba are added, the okra are added to the soup so they don’t overcook. Taste and adjust spices, lemon juice and sugar.

Making the kubba

Take a piece of dough the size of a walnut, shape the dough into a ball and with your thumb make a hole for the stuffing. If the dough is soft just push the meat into it and roll the dough around it. For every piece of dough try stuffing with about the same volume of meat. The sides of the shell should be thin, as the dough will expand in the soup. A bowl of water is useful to dip your hands in to keep the dough from sticking. When the soup is boiling rapidly add the kubba. Cook for about 20 minutes or until the kubba begin to float. Remember the kubba will disintegrate if cooked too long. Uncooked stuffed kubba can be frozen. To freeze put a tray of kubba in the freezer until frozen to the touch. Take them out and put them in a freezer bag. Serve with rice.

okra kubba, gumbo, middle eastern dumplings

 

 

 

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Yael July 17, 2011 at 1:56 am

Great post! Now I’ll sit and read it properly. Loved the pics.

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Rosa July 17, 2011 at 2:07 am

A wonderful recipe! I love okra, but have never cooked with that vegetable.

Cheers,

Rosa

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Simcha July 17, 2011 at 5:14 am

Ive tried to embrace this vegetable and have cooked it just the way Ive been advised but still cant take to it.

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Sarah July 17, 2011 at 5:16 am

Simcha, That’s ok, its the same with me but I try. It’s much better than Mloukhia though (another uber slimy plant of the same family)

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usha July 17, 2011 at 1:43 pm

In India, okra is very popular, believe it or not. The variety available here is not very slimy either and the sliminess dissipates in the cooking . There are loads of ways to cook it.

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Faye Levy July 17, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Your article is fascinating. By the way, Filipinos like okra too. I appreciate your explanation about what makes okra slimy.

I did not grow up with okra but I do like it, especially sauteed and then heated briefly in a Lebanese style sauce (garlic, tomato, lots of cilantro) or the Indian way, a spicy “dry curry” with plenty of sauteed onion.

I do agree that molokhia is a challenge but I liked it when I had it in a restaurant where it was served as a sauce on rice (I think pilaf) and topped with lots of buttery sauteed garlic. When it was mixed with the rice that texture wasn’t as evident.

Your kubba soup recipe looks great. Do you simmer a carrot in the soup too, or did you add one afterwards for the photo?

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Sarah July 17, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Thanks Faye, I added vegetables when I made the chicken soup, carrots, celery and onions, that was used as the base of the kubba soup. Mloukhia makes okra look positively tame, I have not gotten used to it although I have tried it in several different ways (even mloukhia ravioli).

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skubitwo July 18, 2011 at 5:13 pm

i grew up with okra in the old southern u.s. always in stews. so much better fried with cornmeal, but we deep-fried everything. an excellent dish was a variety of deep fried vegetables, assorted squash, okra, mushrooms, tomatoes, etc, with too much salt and pepper, but yummy. i always thought the flowers were especially pretty.

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Faye Levy July 18, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Try mkloukhia more as a sauce than as a soup. Mixed it with rice pilaf to disguise its texture and pour plenty of garlic sauteed in butter on top. That’s how we first had it at an Egyptian restaurant in Anaheim and it was very good. Mloukhia as a ravioli filling would still have that problem of stickiness because all the mloukhia is “together” inside the ravioli.

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Jamie July 19, 2011 at 4:10 am

What an interesting post, Sarah! I don’t often get the chance to taste okra but it is great in Cajun dishes as well as batter fried. I agree that texture is the biggest turn off (and not only in childhood!) and one must only figure out the best way to cook something to turn it into something wonderful. This dish looks yummy!

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Laura April 17, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Ok, have to comment from New Orleans on this one too. I wasn’t raised eating okra, but like it very much now. It’s excellent deep fried. I use yogurt to coat the okra and then batter in cornmeal with pepper and salt. Deep fry and dip in ketchup. No slimy texture. Also, some of the best okra ever happens when you oven roast it. Slice lengthwise. Mix in bowl with olive oil, LOTS of crushed garlic, cajun seasoning (like Tony Cachere’s), sprinkling of balsamic vinegar. Roast at 375 for 45 minutes…turning every so often. It’s amazing crunchy okra. And of course, okra in gumbo is lovely.

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Sarah April 18, 2012 at 3:26 am

Thanks for the recipe Laura! It sounds wonderful and I must try it when okra season rolls around

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