What’s Okra?

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Okra is a versatile vegetable native to Ethiopia and commonly used in African and Southern American cuisine. It is known for its mucilaginous texture and is used as a thickener in soups and stews. It is rich in vitamins and can be grown in sunny gardens with well-worked soil.

Okra is a plant native to Ethiopia, where it has been grown and used for centuries. This vegetable is in common use in many African nations, and also in the American South, thanks to the seeds transported to the United States by slaves. Many people associate it with Southern cooking, and indeed some people are under the impression that ocher is native to the South, thanks to the vegetable’s widespread use in this region.

This plant belongs to the mallow family, making it a relative of cotton, hibiscus, and cocoa, among other well-known crops. Okra plants can grow up to 6 feet (2 meters) tall, and sometimes even taller, under the right conditions. The plants produce large white to yellow flowers which develop in pentagonal ridged pods. This is the part of the plant that is most commonly used, usually while the pods are still immature and tender. The leaves are also edible.

Okra is known for the mucilaginous substance found inside the pods. Depending on how it’s cooked, ocher can be extremely slimy, and some people find this texture repulsive. The thick goo can also be beneficial, however, such as when used in soups and stews as a thickener. To reduce the sticky texture, many cooks like to cook it with acidic ingredients that will cut through the slime, and some believe it benefits from being cut, lightly sprinkled with salt to draw out the slime, and allowed to sit for 15-20 minutes before cooking.

In Africa, okra is used in an assortment of traditional stews. In the American South, it is famously included in gumbo, a hearty stew, and is also served as a side dish, pickled as a condiment, and added to various soups as a thickener. The vegetable has a fairly mild flavor and is highly absorbent, making it a versatile vegetable ingredient.

Some people may also hear this warm-season vegetable referred to as gumbo, lady’s fingers, or bamyas. It is rich in vitamin C, magnesium and folate, making it a useful addition to the human diet. When choosing ocher at the store, cooks should look for firm, evenly colored pods that are relatively small, with no soft spots or signs of discoloration.

People can grow ocher in USDA zones nine through 11, as long as they have a very sunny spot in the garden. The plant prefers rich, well-worked soil, and seeds should be planted about two weeks after the last chance of frost in spring. It needs plenty of room to grow, along with stakes of support, and should be watered intermittently and deeply for best results. Once the pods begin to develop, they can be harvested almost immediately. The longer pods sit on the plant, the harder and more unsightly they will become.

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