Vernacular names in English-speaking nations
The name okra is most often used in the UK, United States and the Philippines, with a variant pronunciation in Caribbean English and Nigeria of okro. The word okra is from the Igboọ́kụ̀rụ̀. The plant and its seed pods are also known as "lady's fingers". In various Bantu languages, okra is called (ki)ngombo or a variant, and this is possibly the origin of the name "gumbo", used in parts of the United States and the English-speaking Caribbean. In much of South Asia, it is called by some variant of bhindi, a name also heard in the United Kingdom, but people in Bengal call it ঢ্যাঁড়স, dharosh (Ḍhyām̐ṛasa ).
The species is a perennial, often cultivated as an annual in temperate climates, and often grows to around 2 m tall. It is related to such species as cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus. The leaves are 10–20 cm long and broad, palmately lobed with 5–7 lobes. The flowers are 4–8 cm in diameter, with five white to yellow petals, often with a red or purple spot at the base of each petal. The fruit is a capsule up to 18 cm long with pentagonal cross-section, containing numerous seeds.
Abelmoschus esculentus is cultivated throughout the tropical and warm temperate regions of the world for its fibrous fruits or pods containing round, white seeds. It is among the most heat- and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and will tolerate soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture, but frost can damage the pods.
In cultivation, the seeds are soaked overnight prior to planting to a depth of 1–2 cm. Germination occurs between six days (soaked seeds) and three weeks. Seedlings require ample water. The seed pods rapidly become fibrous and woody, and, to be edible, must be harvested within a week of the fruit having been pollinated. The fruits are harvested when immature and eaten as a vegetable. Okra is available in two varieties, green and red. Red okra carries the same flavor as the more popular green okra and differs only in color. When cooked, the red okra pods turn green.
The geographical origin of okra is disputed, with supporters of South Asian, Ethiopian and West African origins. Supporters of a South Asian origin point to the presence of its proposed parents in that region. Supporters of a West African origin point to the greater diversity of okra in that region.
The Egyptians and Moors of the 12th and 13th centuries used the Arabic word for the plant, bamya, suggesting it had come from the east.[clarification needed] The plant may have entered southwest Asia across the Red Sea or the Bab-el-Mandeb strait to the Arabian Peninsula, rather than north across the Sahara, or from India. One of the earliest accounts is by a Spanish Moor who visited Egypt in 1216 and described the plant under cultivation by the locals who ate the tender, young pods with meal.
The products of the plant are mucilaginous, resulting in the characteristic "goo" or slime when the seed pods are cooked; the mucilage contains soluble fiber. Some people prefer to minimize the sliminess; keeping the pods intact, and brief cooking, for example stir-frying, help to achieve this. Cooking with acidic ingredients such as a few drops of lemon juice, tomatoes, or vinegar may also help. Alternatively, the pods can be sliced thinly and cooked for a long time so the mucilage dissolves, as in gumbo. The immature pods may be pickled.
Okra leaves may be cooked in a similar way to the greens of beets or dandelions. Since the entire plant is edible, the leaves are also eaten raw in salads. Okra seeds may be roasted and ground to form a caffeine-free substitute for coffee. When importation of coffee was disrupted by the American Civil War in 1861, the Austin State Gazette said, "An acre of okra will produce seed enough to furnish a plantation of fifty negroes with coffee in every way equal to that imported from Rio."
Greenish-yellow edible okra oil is pressed from okra seeds; it has a pleasant taste and odor, and is high in unsaturated fats such as oleic acid and linoleic acid. The oil content of some varieties of the seed can be quite high, about 40%. Oil yields from okra crops are also high. At 794 kg/ha, the yield was exceeded only by that of sunflower oil in one trial. A 1920 study found that a sample contained 15% oil. A 2009 study found okra oil suitable for use as a biofuel.
Zimbabwe: okra (idelele, in Northern Ndebele derere, in Shona) is often sliced thinly and mixed with onion tomato and bicarbonate of soda and boiled to form a thick paste, served with isitshwala in Ndebele or sadza in Shona (a thick paste made from mielie-meal).
Egypt: okra (bam-ya) is prepared in several ways, either cooked as stew with ground beef and onions tomato, or made in the oven.
Tanzania: okra (bamia) is typically prepared by cutting into small pieces and mix with finely chopped young pumpkin leaves. The mix is boiled with added sodium bicarbonate and table salt until well cooked to make a delicacy known as mlenda. Mlenda is then served with ugali and eaten with bare hands rather than spoons.
Brazil: Frango com quiabo (chicken with okra) is especially famous in the region of Minas Gerais, and it is the main ingredient of caruru, a Bahian food with dende oil.
Caribbean: Okra is commonly eaten in soup. In Curaçao the soup is known as jambo which primarily is made out of the okra's mucilage. It is often prepared with fish and funchi, a dish made out of cornmeal and boiling water. In Haiti, it is cooked with rice and maize, and also used as a sauce for meat. In Cuba, it is called quimbombó, along with a stew using okra as its primary ingredient. In the Dominican Republic okra is eaten in salad and also cooked with rice. In Trinidad and Tobago okra is used as one of the main ingredients in the thick soup-like melting-pot dish called callaloo. In Trinidad and Tobago and other West Indian territories such as Barbados it is also used as a main ingredient in the cornmeal-based meal called cou-cou that is similar to polenta.
United States: Gumbo, a hearty stew whose key ingredient is often okra, is found throughout the Gulf Coast of the United States and in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Reflecting the region's African and French heritage, gumbo is often cooked in cast iron pots and served over rice. Deep- or shallow-fried okra coated with cornmeal, flour, etc., is widely eaten in the southern United States. A modern preparation of Okra is breaded with corn meal, deep fried and served with ranch dressing. Several cafe and nationwide restaurant chains serve deep fried okra, typically with a side order of a sauce such as buttermilk (or ranch) dressing. Okra pickles are also popular, normally made during the summer when it is readily available at produce markets and vegetable stands. Traditional Southern American preparation is sliced okra with a light coating of self rising cornmeal and spices, and shallow fried in a skillet with no dipping sauces.
Philippines, okra can be found among traditional dishes like pinakbet, dinengdeng, and sinigang. Because of its mild taste and ubiquity, okra can also be cooked adobo-style, or served steamed or boiled in a salad with tomatoes, onion and bagoong.
India, chopped pieces are stir-fried with spices, pickled, salted or added to gravy-based preparations such as bhindi ghosht and sambar. It is also simmered in coconut-based curries or tossed with ground mustard seeds. In India, it is also an ingredient in curries, in which it is used whole after trimming only the excess stalk and keeping the hard conical top, which is discarded at the time of eating. In South India, okra is cut into small circular pieces about 1/4 inch thick and stir-fried in oil with salt and hot pepper powder to make curry. However, when used in sambar, it is cut into pieces which are one inch thick to prevent it from dissolving when the sambar is let to simmer. In India, okra harvesting is done at later than in Mediterranean regions, when the pods and seeds are larger.