By Penny Ossowski
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) a close relation of hibiscus, cotton, hollyhocks and rosellas is also known as Gumbo, Lady’s Fingers, Bamiyas, kok-tau, kacang bendi and several other names in various countries. This annual appears to have had its origins in tropical Africa and was transported by African slaves, traders and invaders to Northern Africa, the Mediterranean, Middle East, Pakistan, India, Asia, Europe, America but was only brought to Australia when the Greeks started migrating here. In South America it was originally known as slave fruit. This annual bush vegetable does very well in warmer climates being drought and heat resistant while it will not tolerate frost. Its seed pods are commonly used as a thickener for stews because of their gummy mucilage. Depending on variety okra grows from 1 to 4 metres high.
Okra will grow in a wide range of soils but is most productive in soils that have been prepared with lots of organic matter, are well drained and with some garden lime or dolomite added to achieve a pH from 6.0 to 6.5 and in full sun. When the plants are small they need regular watering but as they mature become more drought tolerant.
Plant seeds in Spring or early Summer either directly into the garden or in seed trays, seeds will germinate more quickly if they are soaked overnight before planting. Plant seeds about 2cm deep. In the case of seedlings transplant when they are about 15cm high and space about 50 – 60cm apart. Plants respond well to an occasional spray with liquid fertiliser helping boost pest resistance and fruit production.
Okra varies from dwarf to tall types, short fruit, long fruit, some shaped like antelope horns, some red and some green, some with spines and some without.
Some popular varieties of okra include
Burgundy – Red pods which hold colour after processing, a bushy plant to 1 metre and will tolerate cooler conditions.
Clemson’s Spineless – Uniform dark green spineless long pods
Mammoth Spineless - is highly productive tall bush, up to 2m tall with green stems and leaves. The slightly ribbed, vibrant green pods are best harvested small, less than 10 cm long
Okra 'Red' - is high yielding with rich scarlet, tender pods to 15-17 cm long, that turn green once cooked
Perkin’s Mammoth – grow to 4metres high
Dwarf Green Longpod – the plant grow to 90cm high with pods to 20cm long
Mainly okra isn’t affected by many pests if they are healthy and get plenty of air circulation but at times they can be attacked by silverleaf white fly, caterpillars, stink bugs, aphids and mites. They are susceptible to Root Knot nematodes so plant in a different spot each year. If the weather is very humid and wet powdery mildew could be a problem.
After flowers it will take 5 – 7 days for the fruit to be ready to harvest, about 8 cm long, don’t leave them too long or they will become tough and stringy. It is best to harvest every couple of days as this ensures tender fruits and promotes more flowers and fruit. Wear rubber gloves when picking okra as its sap will irritate your skin. Some varieties of okra have prickly hair like fibres/spines that are scratchy and irritating these need to be trimmed before cooking – spineless varieties are best. Pods can be topped, tailed and left whole, or sliced before use and can be kept in the fridge or frozen or pickled for later use. To save seed leave the fruit/pods on the plants until they mature and are dry then harvest and remove the seed to store for next year.
Okra can be sautéed, stir fried, boiled, steamed, stewed, casseroled, baked or fried. The high mucilaginous content of the pods is ideal for both thickening and flavouring stews and soups. In India they are commonly used in curries while Africans love it hot and spicy and in Louisiana and the Gulf States of the US it is the main ingredient of Gumbo. In West Africa the leaves are eaten like spinach. The leaves can also be used as a thickener. Okra can also be crumbed and deep fried. Some people don’t like the sliminess of the okra pods, slow cooking or cooking with acidic ingredients (citrus, tomatoes, vinegar) can make them more palatable. Okra seeds can be pressed to make a pleasant tasting oil or seeds can be roasted, ground and used as a coffee substitute as was done in Southern America when coffee was scarce during the Civil War years.
As I’ve yet to gain experience in cooking okra I asked a dear friend, a neighbour from my childhood to help, here is what she had to say.
“First I will tell you how I prepare them. Choose small green ones preferably even though I have bought large green ones which were still OK although fibrey. After washing I soak them at least 30 mins in fresh water with a couple of slurps of white vinegar (once I left them overnight, no worries). This reduces the mucilaginous mouth feel or slimy texture that some people don’t like. It isn’t called Gumbo in Louisiana USA for nothing. Middle East countries call them lady fingers (short and stubby?) perhaps they have a different variety, I think they look more like rockets than ladies fingers.
(Penny you tasted my plain cooked okra without salt or sauce and thought it tasted okay)
Several open pollinated varieties of Okra seed are available to buy from Eden Seeds online sales point.
Cooking with Okra
500g okra 2 or 3 tbsp vinegar Water
Wash, there is no need to peel its little cap unless it looks stringy, place in dish cover with water and vinegar for about 30 minutes. Drain then cook gently on stove top in pan with a small amount of water until just done. (They should be firm and not split).
At this stage some can be frozen for later use and the remainder served warm or cold with vinaigrette or my favourite okra is to make a mush with onion and tomatoes.
250g okra (soaked as above)
equal portions of Onions (diced) and Tomatoes (chopped fresh or canned)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Sweat onion, garlic and oregano in pan, add tomatoes and cook until nice and mushy.
Add soaked okra so it lies happily in the tomato 'stewp' (thicker than soup). Cover and simmer slowly. One layer is best so it can be checked easily by first time cooks. Cooking time varies with personal preference some like it firm, I like it best soft but not broken up.
(Be aware it collapses after 30 minutes of strong cooking so if you just want to thicken a stew add a handful of okra to the stew 30 minutes before its ready.)
Back to the recipe, have a spare tin of tomatoes in case you think it is too thick. Eat with rice, noodles potatoes or toast. I like parsley with it too.
You can make this very quickly taking short cuts and adding left over sweet corn and white beans etc. to the mush but always treat Okra gently and add last. If you have overcooked it then use it as the base for a lamb or beef casserole add chilli or cayenne and it will then become Gumbo.
If cooked plain as I described before, they can be added to any juicy dishes e.g. veggie curry.
I have eaten very small okra deep fried in tempura batter, delicious
NB Diane Holuigue in The Clever Cook says ‘Wash, dry and shallow fry in oil as you would mushrooms.’”
Medicinally the leaves can be used to make a tea which is beneficial when used as a gargle for sore throats and tonsillitis.
This is a summer vegetable that is worth a try.
Serving Size: (100 grams raw)
Calories: 31 Kilojoules: 130.2
Total Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 0mg
Total Carbohydrates 7g Dietary Fibre 3g
Sugars 1g Sodium 8mg
Protein 2g Vitamin A 375IU
Folate 88 mcg Vitamin C 21.1 mg
Manganese .99mg Vitamin K 53 mcg
Thiamin 0.2 mg Niacin 1mg
Vitamin B6 .215mg Riboflavin .06mg
Calcium 81mg Magnesium 57mg
Phosphorous 63mg Potassium 303mg
Iron .8mg Zinc .6mg
1½ - 2 kg small okra pods 2½ cups white vinegar 4 cloves garlic
5 cups water ½ cup pickling salt (or cooking or kosher) 2 small hot chillies
4 teas dill seed
Combine water, vinegar, salt and ½ dill seed in pot and bring to a boil
Sterilise pickling jars, wash and trim okra only as necessary (don’t cut the pod) then pack okra firmly into hot jars leaving ½ cm head space. Put a clove of garlic, some dill seeds, sprig of dill and ½ chilli into each jar.
Pour hot liquid over okra leaving ½ inch head space. Remove any air bubbles. Seal bottles tightly.