Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Okra comes from the annual plant Hibiscus (Abelmoschus) esculentus, a member of the hibiscus family, and a relative of roselle and cotton. It originated in either southwest Asia or eastern Africa, and came to the southern United States with the slave trade. The portion that we eat is the immature seedpod or capsule, with its distinctive five-cornered shape, starlike in cross section, and its notoriously slimy mucilage. Plant mucilage is a complex mixture of long, entangled carbohydrate molecules and proteins that helps plants and their seeds retain water. (Cactus and purslane are similarly slimy; the seeds of basil, fenugreek, and flax exude water-trapping mucilage when soaked, and are therefore used as thickeners or to add texture to drinks.) Okra mucilage can be exploited as a thickener in soups and stews (as it is in Louisiana gumbo, either to replace or augment powdered sassafras leaf), or its qualities can be minimized by using dry cooking methods (frying, baking). In Africa, slices of the pod are sun-dried. Okra has a mild flavor (though a relative, A. moschatus, produces aromatic seeds from which perfumers extract the musky ingredient ambrette).