Succulent and mellow, with subtle suggestions of eggplant, artichoke, and asparagus, okra does not seem a likely object of controversy. Yet exclamations of alarm or adoration erupt at the mere mention of this provocative pod, for a simple reason— its undeniable, un-American sliminess. Consequently, almost anyone writing on the subject in the United States hastens to reassure the reader that the unseemly slitheriness will be eliminated when okra is either soaked in vinegar (or water), fried (or boiled), cooked quickly (or forever), etc. Not so. The clear, sweetish, viscous, light slick that okra exudes belongs and will not vanish. It will always be present to some degree—and it is luscious to those who fancy it.
Alarmists are likely to have been raised far from the tender little vegetable, whereas those blessed with early contact generally remain pro-podders for life. Links with Africa, India, and the Middle East foster a fondness for okra; in the New World, culinary connections with the Caribbean, South America, and the southern United States may do the same.
So rooted is okra in the food lore of the American South that many people assume it to be native to the region, but it arrived, like watermelon, with African slaves. The handsome plant, which displays showy yellow or rose flowers like hibiscus (its close relative) and bears its tapered pods upright like torches, belongs to the Malvaceae family (see mallows). The word “okra” derives from a Ghanaian language; “gumbo,” another common name for the vegetable (and for the celebrated soup-stew of Louisiana and the Low Country) comes from an Angolan language.
Part of okra’s problem has been type-casting in recipes. Deep-fried, Deep-South okra and Creole gumbo, however memorable, do not describe okra’s range of culinary possibilities. (A recipe for gumbo from a French cookbook of 1931, La bonne cuisine aux colonies, didn’t help: Take veal breast, chicken, ham, oyster or mussels, lobster or crab. Simmer 5—6 hours. Add boiled okra to thicken.)
Fortunately, okra’s repertoire has been refreshed by an ongoing influx of Indian, Caribbean, South American, and African immigrants. Thanks to this revival, the versatile vegetable can be found in new cookbooks and in an increasing number of markets. Depending upon the community a market serves, okra may be called gombo, from West and North Africa and the French Caribbean; bhindi, from India; quiabo, from Brazil; bamya or bamia, from Egypt, Turkey, and Greece; ochro or lady’s fingers, from the English Caribbean; or quingombo, from the Spanish Caribbean.
Red okra can range from crimson to maroon in color, and from a cornichon to a banana in size. It is not a fashionable “invention” at all, but a reintroduction to the market. The three distinct cultivars I’ve cooked have been exceptionally fleshy, sweet, and flavorful—but no more so than good green okra. The brilliant pods are striking, but be warned that once cooked, they’re likely to turn deep olive or spruce green (thoroughly acceptable colors to eat). In seed catalogues and plant histories, I have read about scarlet okra that stays scarlet, but none has landed in my pot thus far.