“If God had made anything better
He’d have kept it for Himself.”
— Poet James Dickey
The South, more than any region in the United States, has an obsession with okra. Whether it’s fried, sauteed, grilled, pickled, simmered in gumbo, or eaten raw, the edible pod has earned a special place at the Southern table.
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) ranks high among the culinary pleasures of summer. It flourishes in hot weather and even hangs around in the fall. It’s so popular in South Carolina that an annual autumn festival is held in its honor. The Irmo Okra Strut is said to be the “largest and longest running celebration of okra in the United States,” with entertainment, a parade, and all the crispy, fried okra you could possibly eat.
When dredged in cornmeal and skillet fried, the slippery mouthfeel inside the okra becomes, enjoyably, a little creamy. Serve the crunchy bites as a side dish, or scatter over green salad or rice pilaf. As a snack they will disappear faster than a bowl of popcorn. Okra’s blandness adapts well to global flavors. Spice up the cornmeal with ⅛ teaspoon cayenne and ½ teaspoon of garam masala or cumin. Or sprinkle hot, fried okra with Cajun or jerk-flavored salt, Chile Lime Seasoning Blend (Trader Joe’s), or Mexican Taco Truck Seasoning (McCormick’s). If using frozen okra, thaw and pat dry. Innovative cooks use air fryers to cook okra with less oil.
2 cups fresh, tender sliced okra pods, cut in ¾-inch pieces
¼ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cup fine, stone-ground, yellow cornmeal (to add more texture, substitute half for medium, stone-ground, yellow cornmeal)
Safflower or canola oil for frying, as needed
Black pepper and sea salt or seasoning salt, as desired
Stir okra with buttermilk in a bowl. Whisk flour with cornmeal; add to okra. Toss until well coated. Put a 9- to 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat; add ⅓ to ½ cup oil to coat the bottom. Toss okra in the coating once again; spread onto a plate. (Okra can be coated up to 30 minutes before frying.) Place a single layer of okra pieces in the sizzling oil, without crowding. (Prepare in batches if necessary.) Cook 5 to 6 minutes until crisp and golden brown; turn okra pieces. If browning too quickly, reduce heat slightly; okra should still be sizzling. When done, scoop okra onto paper towels to drain; sprinkle with seasoning. Serve at once. Recipe can be doubled. Serves 3 to 4.
What’s not to love? Okra is from Malvaceae, or the mallow family of flowering plants, and many are valued as food and medicine. The mallows include hibiscus, hollyhock, marsh mallow plant, and cotton. In the botanical world, seed-bearing okra pods are technically fruits, but we cook them as a vegetable. Okra’s buttery yellow, hibiscus-like flowers are highly attractive to pollinators like bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Their beauty is fleeting, but when they drop, the small, green nubs left behind grow quickly into edible pods. Okra is a “cut-and-come-again” plant and should be picked every day or two.
Clemson University’s award-winning ‘Clemson Spineless’ is a dominate seed variety developed in 1939 that has become the standard in gardens around the country. It was improved in 1980 as ‘Clemson Spineless 80’. Some people get contact dermatitis from the hairlike spines on okra plants and pods, but the trait was bred out of this variety. A light rinse or scrub under cool water will remove the okra spines; they also disappear during cooking.
‘Red Burgundy’ is another award-winning cultivar from Clemson. To preserve the pod’s rich, red color, add to salads or serve raw with a dip. Bradford Family Okra is a heritage crop from the South Carolina family who produces the famous Bradford watermelons. The pods grow large, yet remain tender and sweet, making them a favorite among South Carolina chefs. They can be stuffed, and the seeds have been called “okra caviar.” Choppee okra is an heirloom crop from the Jacobs family of Georgetown, South Carolina, named for Choppee Indians.
The Lost Crops of Africa says okra “may actually be a Cinderella, though still living on the hearth of neglect amid the ashes of scorn.” Sadly, okra has a reputation for being a very slick character! It’s full of mucilage, an important element in many plants of the mallow family. Slice an okra pod, and immediately it begins to ooze a sticky, soluble fiber with a viscous nature. To put it simply — its slime is thought to protect plant wounds, help with germination, and food storage. Mucilage offers amazing therapeutic benefits and excels at thickening gumbos, soups, and stews. The mucilaginous sap from the roots of marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), okra’s cousin, was once used for making confectionery marshmallows. Another mucilage-rich family member, Roselle or guinea sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa) gives Red Zinger tea a pretty crimson color.
Okra’s slippery texture is largely noticed only when the pods are boiled or steamed. It is minimized when whole okra is fried or grilled. Rinse pods only briefly; pat dry. Avoid cutting into the pods when trimming the stem ends. Avoid washing cut pieces. Acidic ingredients like tomatoes or vinegar tend to diminish mucilage. Small 2- to 3-inch pods may be a little less gooey inside.
Whether you grow okra or buy it at the farmers market, select vibrant-colored, 3- to 4-inch pods with no brown blemishes. Large okra can be fibrous and hard to cut. Eat within a few days of harvest; the pods don’t keep well, even chilled. Store in a brown paper bag; wash just before use. Iron and copper cookware can discolor okra.
The entire okra plant is edible and useful with various food, medical, and even industrial applications. Okra mucilage is being studied for use as a film coating for pills and as a blood volume expander. It makes a good emollient for inflamed skin conditions. Commercial food applications include using it as a whipping agent for reconstituted egg whites; as a stabilizer to prevent ice crystals in ice cream and sherbets; and as an emulsifier for mayonnaise, cheese spreads, and frostings. It’s the substance that thickens ketchup and slows its flow. Okra’s “bast fiber” is used in papermaking and spun into rope and burlap. Okra mucilage is also used in beauty creams and hair care products.
Like a gumbo chockablock with ingredients, okra is a powerhouse of nutrients, including vitamins A, B, C, and K, calcium, magnesium, and folate. A 100-gram portion (1 cup) has 299 mg of potassium (rivaling banana), about two grams of protein, and 33 calories. Okra is high in soluble fiber; its gums and pectins are thought to help lower LDL cholesterol. Okra may have antidiabetic properties; early-stage research into its effects on blood sugar looks promising. Okra leaves, flowers, and seeds are nutritious. Add the leaves to salads or use as potherbs. Stuff the flowers as you would squash blossoms. Okra seed oil is rich in unsaturated fatty acids such as linoleic acid. When coffee supplies were limited during the Civil War, roasted, ground okra seeds were used as a substitute. The seeds are also ground into flour.
Okra is a seasoned world traveler with a long storied past and an enduring culinary legacy. Although research is inconclusive, scholars believe it is native to Africa. Strong evidence indicates it was domesticated in the Abyssinian Center of Origin — one of 12 geographic regions designated as places where modern plants emerged. This area encompasses Ethiopia, the hill country of Eritrea, and a portion of Somalia. The plant spread to West Africa, Egypt in the north, the Arabian Peninsula, the Mediterranean, India, and beyond.
Three of the best ways to cook okra don’t really require a recipe. For the first method, coat the rinsed, dried pods with olive oil and roast on a baking sheet in a 400 degrees F oven about 20 minutes. The concentrated flavor of the okra can be enhanced with your favorite seasoning.
In the second method, cook the pods on a hot outdoor grill 5 to 6 minutes until lightly charred and tender; season to taste. Lace 3 or 4 pods onto two skewers for easy turning.
The third method is to cook the whole pods in salted, boiling water 3 to 4 minutes or until barely tender yet still bright green. Drain well; serve with butter, lemon juice, and sea salt. Less cooking equals more nutrients.
Fresh Okra Soup
In southeastern Nigeria’s Igbo language, okra is ókúrú (which became “ochra” then okra in English). Of African descent, okra soup is a Lowcountry specialty. Cooks once grated or chopped okra to a paste to encourage its gooey texture — a plus for thickening soup. Another method is to add a pinch of baking soda during cooking to raise the pH to a more alkaline level. If homemade chicken broth is unavailable, simmer 5 cups store-bought broth, 1½ pounds chicken thighs or legs, 1 chopped onion, and a celery stalk for 45 minutes on low heat. Strain broth; reserve meat for the soup. In the Lowcountry, rice accompanies the soup; in the Upcountry, it’s cornbread. Don’t forget to pass the hot pepper sauce. The soup can also be simmered in a slow cooker 3 to 4 hours.
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped (6 to 7 ounces)
½ cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped bell pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger root
2 cups peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes, or 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes with juice
2½ cups tender, sliced, fresh okra pods or frozen, sliced okra
4 cups homemade chicken broth or beef broth
1 cup tomato juice, preferably spicy
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 to 3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
1 bay leaf
1 cup small, green butter beans or frozen baby lima beans
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
In a Dutch oven, heat oil. Saute onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic, and ginger root for 3 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, okra, broth, juice, vinegar, and herbs. Simmer on low about 1 hour. Add butter beans and simmer 30 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serves 6.
Whole Fried Okra
See the ingredients for Skillet-Fried Okra on page 108. Rinse and dry 20, whole (4-inch) okra pods. Coat with buttermilk, then the cornmeal mixture. Fry in ½ cup oil, turning okra every 2 to 3 minutes, until pods are evenly, golden browned. Drain, season, and serve with a dipping sauce like remoulade, spicy mango chutney, or Asian peanut sauce. Makes 4 to 5 appetizer servings.
Okra & Tomato Pilau
Pilau (pee LOE), or perloo, is a South Carolina specialty that descends from Persia’s pilafs. It’s theorized that French Huguenots carried the dish to the Lowcountry, where African cooks added their spin creating dishes like Limpin’ Susan (okra-topped rice), Hoppin’ John (field peas and rice), and Red Rice, which stems from West Africa’s orange-red jollof rice. Many are one-pot dishes with chicken, game birds, shrimp, oysters, smoked sausage, venison — even squirrel and opossum, if available. In this side dish version, long-grain rice is stirred in the hot fat, which helps keep the grains separate.
4 slices crisp cooked bacon, crumbled
3 tablespoons olive oil or bacon fat (or a blend), as desired
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 cup sliced, small, tender okra (about ½ inch)
1 cup long-grain rice (a Carolina rice, jasmine, or Texmati)
1 large garlic clove, minced
¾ cup peeled, chopped, drained tomato (or canned, chopped tomato)
2 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons minced, fresh herbs (basil, thyme, or parsley)
Cook bacon; reserve. Heat oil in a 2-quart, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add onion; saute 2 minutes. Add okra; cook 4 minutes more. Stir in rice; cook 30 seconds, then add garlic, tomato, and broth. Bring to a boil. Cover pan and reduce heat to the lowest setting. Cook 18 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat and let rice rest tightly covered for 5 to 10 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork, adding seasoning and herbs. Garnish with bacon. Serves 4.
Shrimp, Okra, and Tomato Pilau: After 13 minutes of cooking, spread ¾ to 1 pound raw, cleaned, medium shrimp over the rice mixture. Continue cooking 5 minutes, then let the rice rest, as directed. Carefully blend shrimp and rice mixture; serve with garnishes.
Marinated Sesame Okra
Blanched okra is dressed with a tangy, Asian dressing that can be prepared several hours ahead and chilled. Serve as an appetizer or salad. For a quick snack, omit the dressing and sprinkle okra with Japanese Seven Spice (Shichimi tōgarashi). The spicy blend includes red chili flakes, orange peel, sesame seeds, and sanshō ‒Japanese pepper.
16 tender, very fresh okra pods of uniform size, stem ends trimmed
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (light or dark)
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger root
1 thin spring onion, (mostly white parts) chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ to ½ teaspoon Asian sesame oil, to taste
1 bird’s eye chili pepper, seeded, thinly sliced, if desired
2 teaspoons toasted black or white sesame seeds
Blanch okra in a pot of boiling, salted water 1 minute. Drain; rinse in cold water. Pat dry. Combine remaining ingredients. Arrange whole okra in a serving dish; pour dressing on top. Serve at once. Serves 4.
Okra & Tomatoes
Okra is the summer soulmate of vine-ripened tomatoes. Serve this stewed vegetable mélange as a side dish on its own or spoon over cooked rice. Pass the hot sauce! One-half cup fresh-cut corn kernels, or small, plump butter beans or 2 slices cooked, chopped bacon can be simmered with the mixture. Protein-rich, cooked chickpeas would add a nutritional boost. This dish tastes even better the second day.
1 tablespoon olive oil or safflower oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 small onion, chopped
2 cups sliced, fresh okra (½-inch thick)
1 large clove garlic, minced
½ large yellow or red bell pepper, diced
2 cups peeled, chopped, ripe tomatoes with juice or 1 (15-ounce) can undrained, diced tomatoes
1 cup tomato juice, preferably spicy (a little more if desired)
1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh chopped herbs (basil, thyme, or marjoram)
In a medium saucepan, heat oil and butter. Saute onion 2 minutes; add okra. Cook 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often. Stir in garlic and bell pepper. Cook 2 minutes, then add tomatoes, tomato juice, vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper. Simmer 25 minutes. Stir in herbs; cook about 10 minutes more. Serve at once or cool and refrigerate; reheat before serving. Serves 4 to 5.
Salad is a refreshing way to eat raw okra straight from the garden. Any variety works as long as the pods are super fresh and tender; rinse and dry before cutting. Try the heirloom variety ‘Red Burgundy’; the stunning, crimson pods are often found at farmers markets. For a more substantial salad, stir in 1 to 2 cups cooked, seasoned barley or farro; spoon salad onto butter lettuce leaves. Prepare and combine the following vegetables in a bowl:
2 cups sliced, tender okra pods (¾-inch)
1½ cups red grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise (about 10 ounces)
1 firm cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut in medium cubes
1 medium yellow bell pepper, seeded, cut in ¾-inch cubes
2 thin scallions, (white parts mostly), thin sliced
¼ cup chopped fresh basil, parsley, or cilantro
⅓ cup light olive oil
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 tablespoon minced shallot
Ground black pepper, to taste
Whisk dressing ingredients; pour over vegetables. Serve at once or chill for 2 hours. Serves 4.