There are many ways to reveal okra’s charms: The fresh pods can be breaded and deep-fried, pickled in a vinegary brine, charred over fiery coals, gently stewed, or used to thicken soup, to name just a few. The vegetable is even good lightly steamed; in Southern barbecue joints, you’ll often find a single downy pod draped atop a dish of black-eyed peas, seductively flaunting tenderness, grassy sweetness, and viscosity. And purists such as Chris Smith, gardener and author of The Whole Okra (2019), appreciate the joys of okra without even bringing it into the kitchen: “I like eating it raw in the field,” he enthused on a recent call from his home in Asheville, North Carolina.
It’s no wonder that okra is used in such a variety of preparations, as its roots run deep and wide. The vegetable’s origin is debated by botanists, though many agree that Abelmoschus esculentus grew wild in Asia and was later domesticated in East Africa. From there, the velvety pods became popular across large swaths of the globe, where they were given many names—including gombo, bamia, and okro—and incorporated into a variety of recipes and culinary traditions. In India, where the majority of the world’s crop is grown and consumed, one of the most beloved dishes is bhindi masala, a deeply fragrant, spice-heavy celebration of the pods.
It’s All Usable!
Chris Smith, gardener and author of The Whole Okra (2019), thinks his muse deserves more recognition: “[Okra has] all these benefits that no one is currently recognizing on any kind of scale.” For one thing, he told me, most parts of the lush plant—not just the seed pods—can be consumed: The eye-catching flowers can be enjoyed straight from the garden or dried and steeped to make tea; the nutritious young leaves are wonderful braised; and the protein-rich mature seeds are “so, so delicious” when roasted and ground into a flour that “is nutty and smells like coffee.” Even the stalks, he said, can be used as a fiber crop.
And anywhere in the Americas where the culinary traditions of enslaved Africans took hold, we see okra and the recipes of Black cooks. Along with gumbo—perhaps the most famous of all American okra dishes—a variety of other okra soups are seen in early U.S. recipe collections, and menus from the late 19th and early 20th centuries feature the likes of “Scalloped Okra,” “Strained Okra in a Cup,” and “Okra Jelly.” Which brings us to the sticking point.
Using Science to Dictate Texture
Okra can have two distinctly different characters, depending on how it’s cooked. Its slick texture is formed by polysaccharides that dissolve in water to make a slippery gel. Thus, slowly stewing the vegetable exploits its gooey properties, eventually releasing most of its polysaccharides to create a thick, silky consistency. Conversely, a dry cooking method such as roasting bypasses slipperiness: In the heat of the oven, okra’s mucilage dehydrates and clings to the inside of the pod. When the okra is chewed, this mucilage doesn’t have time to dissolve and form a gel.
Or is it the slipping point? The most intriguing part of okra might just be its mucilage (the technical term for the slimy substance within the cells of its pod and seeds). As it turns out, this goo is quite easy to manipulate (for details, see “Using Science to Dictate Texture”). Here, I celebrate the wonderful versatility of okra with two distinctly different preparations.
Deep nuttiness, lightly crisp edges
Roasting is a terrific way to cook okra. The high, dry heat of the oven concentrates the pods’ nuanced vegetal flavors and encourages browning reactions that create even more complexity. Heat also dehydrates the okra’s mucilage, so it becomes nearly undetectable.
Roasting is also simple by nature. My method starts with selecting pods that are similar in diameter (depending on the variety, okra can be elegantly long and thin or barrel-shaped and short, grassy green or burgundy, ridged or smooth, and straight or curved) so that they will cook at the same rate. Just lop off their caps and then split them lengthwise to expose their interiors, which are clustered with small round seeds.
After a quick toss with vegetable oil and salt, arrange the okra cut sides down on a baking sheet, and then seal them in with aluminum foil before sliding the assembly into a 425-degree oven. A steaming period prevents the pointed tips from withering and charring before the thicker upper sections turn tender. After 15 minutes, remove the foil and allow the flat surfaces of the okra to brown for about 10 minutes. The results are remarkable: tender, with graceful streaks of brown at the edges—and virtually absent of slipperiness. Serve the pods as a side dish with almost any entrée or offer them as finger food with a dipping sauce. Either way, they’ll disappear fast.
Tender-sweet pods, full-bodied broth
In the South, where okra is a pillar of the kitchen, the pods are often chopped and simmered with tomatoes and alliums—and sometimes smoky pork—until they turn supple and their mucilage acts similarly to a roux, thickening the savory broth.
Soul food expert and James Beard Award–winning author Adrian Miller told me he considers the simple stew “a very complete meal” when served atop a heap of white rice, and he grinned broadly at the memory of his last batch, recalling “grubbin’ on it for days.”
I start my version by frying bacon pieces with onion, cayenne and black peppers, smoked paprika, and onion and garlic powders. Chopped fresh tomato goes in next so that the juices can deglaze the bottom of the saucepan. Finally, I stir in the okra, along with water—key for encouraging the mucilage to bring viscosity to the stew—and fresh lemon juice and let it bubble for about 25 minutes, until the okra becomes soft and tender and cloaked in a rich, velvety broth.