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Five Ways to Eat Okra

Okra's a strange little vegetable, the kind of thing you might not guess was edible if no one told you. Its prickly skin can sting your fingers, and slicing into it reveals little more than seeds and slime. I admit, if okra hadn't been included in our CSA share these past few weeks, I would probabl...

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Okra's a strange little vegetable, the kind of thing you might not guess was edible if no one told you. Its prickly skin can sting your fingers, and slicing into it reveals little more than seeds and slime. I admit, if okra hadn't been included in our CSA share these past few weeks, I would probably still be unacquainted with it—and I'm still not exactly in love.

But hey, I'm from New England. Okra's a beloved staple in other regions, such as the American South, parts of Africa and the Mediterranean. According to the book "Food Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa," by Fran Osseo-Asare:
"Okra is another indigenous West African vegetable that has spread globally. The English word 'okra' is derived from the Twi word 'nkuruma' and is famous in the United States as the thickening agent in the gumbo stews of Louisiana. The French word for okra is 'gombo,' which, like gumbo, derives from a Bantu word...When cut, it is...much valued for its mucilaginous or sticky properties."
Okra, courtesy Flickr user FootosVanRobin

The okra plant, Abelmoschus esculentus, is a cousin of cotton in the mallow family. (Its hibiscus-like flowers inspired its original scientific name Hibiscus esculentus, but botanists later renamed it.) It's a good source of vitamin C and fiber, as well as glutathione, an antioxidant with anticarcinogenic properties. Not all varieties have those sharp hairs on the outside of the pods, but if present, their sting can be quickly neutralized by hot water.

Here are a few ways to prepare okra:

1. Fried. Dredged in egg and cornmeal and fried to a golden crisp, it's a "simple Southern classic." Add a twist by making it curried.

2. Gumbo, of course. Try it with seafood, chicken and sausage, or no meat at all; there are a zillion recipes out there. If you're short on time, see Cooking for Engineers' version.

3. Oven-roasted. It can be simply flavored with olive oil, salt and pepper, or smothered with spices. Maybe, like Cooking Books blogger Andrea promises, this spicy version will make an okra believer out of me yet.

4. Stew. If you're not crazy about okra on its own, try disguising it with stronger flavors and textures, as in this tomato-based lamb and okra stew or bamya, an Egyptian stew made with beef broth.

5. Pickles. Or, "wickles," (wicked sweet and spicy pickles) as this blogger puts it. Spicy seems to be popular---Alton Brown's recipe uses dried chilis and black peppercorns, and even Ladybird Johnson's pickled okra recipe included hot peppers.

Do you like okra? If so, what's your favorite way to make it?
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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