Nutritious Okra Has Rich History (Despite the Slime)

Patient Expert

"Ew, you can have all of these," my friend Kaye said as we divided our community supported agriculture share on Friday. So what exactly did Kaye foist off on me? Okra.

So what exactly is okra? "A long, pointed pod with fine ridges extending the length of its body, okra's other name, lady fingers, suggests the refinement of its shape," writes Deborah Madison in her cookbook, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. "Its African name, gombo, recalls okra's best known role in the dish of the same name, gumbo." Okra - known as ochro, okoro, quimgombo, quingumbo, kopi arab, kacang bendi, bamya, bamieh, quiabo, okura, qiu kui, bamia, bindi and bhindi in other parts of the world - was discovered near Ethiopia during the 12th century B.C. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported the crop was cultivated by ancient Egyptians and soon was grown across the Middle East and North Africa. Okra came to North America during the time period when slaves were traded. And this vegetable is now used in the Greek, Turkish, Indian, Caribbean, South American and African cuisines.

Okra is highly nutritious. "This food is low in Saturated Fat and Sodium and very low in Cholesterol," Self Nutrition Data reports, giving okra a five-star rating for weight loss and optimum health. A one-half cup serving has only 18 calories, but provides 22 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C. Okra also is a good source of protein, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and copper and a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin K, thiamin, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, magnesium and manganese. "Okra is a powerhouse of valuable nutrients, early half of which is soluble fiber in the form of gums and pectins," the University of Illinois Extension reports. "Soluble fiber helps to lower serum cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease. The other half is insoluble fiber which helps to keep the intestinal tract healthy decreasing the risk of some forms of cancer, especially colorectal cancer."

The CDC identified six varieties of okra: Clemson, emerald, Lee, Annie Oakley, Chinese okra, and purple okra. Madison recommends selecting green or red pods that are up to three inches in length. "This isn't just a nicety - larger okra can be tough as ropes," she notes. When shopping, select crispy-feeling okra that has an intense color and avoiding pods that are soft, shriveled, bruised, cut, moldy or with dark spots. You can wrap the unwashed pods in perforated plastic bags and put them in your refrigerator's crisper drawer, according to The okra needs to be used within 2-3 days of purchase. If the tips and ends of the pods start turning a dark color, you know that the vegetable is deteriorating.

So now for the reason that Kaye gave me all of the okra - its sliminess.   "By any name, okra is slimy, and rather than try to ignore this fact, perhaps it's best just to admit that's how things are," Madison said. "Okra has its virtues - thickening gumbos or stews and binding vegetable juices into a sauce - but crispy texture isn't one of them.

Can the sliminess of okra be reduced? "When preparing, remember that the more it is cut, the slimier it will become," the CDC explained. To avoid the slime factor, trim off the ends of the okra, but avoid puncturing the okra capsule. Overcooking also can cause the okra to become slimy.

Okra can be prepared in a variety of ways. However, you first need to be careful about what you cook the okra in. "Okra is a sensitive vegetable and should not be cooked in pans made of iron, copper or brass since the chemical properties turn okra black," the CDC stated. With that said, know that you can prepare okra in a number of ways. This vegetable can be pickled, steamed, stewed, stir fried, deep-fried and grilled. In fact, Madison stressed, "Grilling is one of the best things a person can do with okra." She recommends skewering it, brushing it with vegetable oil and a sprinkle of salt and then grilling it on both sides until lightly marked.

So my goal this week is to make something out of these pods that isn't deep-fried (which is how I first experienced it when I first ate it during school lunches). Right now, I'm leaning toward a recipe for okra and corn with tomatoes that's on the University of Illinois Extension website.

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (N.D.). Vegetable of the month: okra.

Kochhar, R. (2010). All about okra. Retrieved from (2011). The advantages of okra.

Madison, D. (1997). Vegetarian cooking for everyone. New York: Broadway Books.

Self Nutrition (N.D.). Okra, cooked, boiled, drained, without salt.
University of Illinois Extension. (N.D.). Okra.