Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Okra: Worthy of a Strut

Is any plant as disrespected, insulted, or maligned as the okra? In a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, adults named okra as one of the three vegetables they liked least. So many people underappreciate this gem of nature and treasure of beauty. A major campaign is needed to restore this fascinating vegetable to its rightful place in the food chain. Yes, it is beautiful, versatile, and nutritious as many around the world know much better than Americans.

The first opportunity to appreciate okra is in warm weather when its blossoms reach skyward in many home gardens and decorate properties along a highway. The flowers of the okra are as beautiful as those of the hibiscus, which the okra is related to. The flowers of an okra are up to 3 inches in diameter and consist of five petals (white to yellow) with usually a dot (red to purple) at the base of each petal. However, in contrast to the beautiful blossoms is the sticky, mucilaginous juice inside the resulting pods.

Some newcomers are turned off by okra’s characteristic gooey substance when its green seed pods with numerous white, round seeds are cut and fried. As a result, they avoid the “goo” by keeping the pods intact, cooking briefly (such as stir frying), or cooking with an acidic ingredient (such as tomatoes, vinegar, or lemon juice). But why avoid a major benefit of okra?

Need a thickening agent for a soup or stew? What works better than okra? The name gumbo derives from a west Africa term (the Bantu word ki ngombo) that means okra, which is used as a principal ingredient in gumbo because the mucilage released when okra slices are fried is an excellent thickening agent. In addition to being a main ingredient in gumbo, okra is a tasty delight that can be fried, boiled, blanched, saut̩ed, baked, grilled, steamed, blanched, and prepared in other ways Рeven freeze dried into okra chips.

The seed pod, a fruit in the botanical sense, is harvested immature and eaten as a vegetable. What can be healthier? Okra is low in calories with practically no fat and high in fiber, provides vitamins A and C, and has minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. In addition to protein, okra seeds possess qualities like those of olive oil, the standard of excellence. Because its high soluble fiber may cut the pace that sugars are absorbed from the intestine, okra is often recommended for diabetics to stabilize their blood sugar.

Okra is also an accomplished traveler. Of all the native food crops of Africa, it is among the most widespread within the continent. Early records indicate that it was cultivated in Egypt as early as 1216. The plant likely spread throughout the Mediterranean region and later was first recorded in the Americas in 1658 where the Portuguese probably bought it from west Africa. By the early 1700s okra had arrived in the area of the U.S. South, and Thomas Jefferson had recorded its cultivation in Virginia by 1781.

Around the world the benefits of okra have been proven. West Africans slice, sun dry, and grind pods into a powder as a way to satisfy their hunger before the next harvest. Turks string out pods to dry for winter use. Asian counties use the leaves and immature fruit in ointments to relieve pain. Mature pods can even be ground and roasted as coffee substitutes, as they have been in Central America as well as in the American South during the Civil War.

With such a legacy as an extensive traveler, a beneficial culinary ingredient with pervasive kitchen uses, and a purveyor of good health, no wonder many aficionados appreciate this plant. However, few do so with the enthusiasm as the citizens of Irmo, S.C., who conduct an Okra Strut each September to celebrate this magnificent vegetable. A small town of 12,000 residents, Irmo claims “the nation’s original celebration of okra” as it brings Okra Man to life and expands to 55,000 with visitors during the two-day festival it has conducted since 1973. In addition to a parade, the Strut includes arts and crafts, rides and amusements, and obviously festival food that includes okra prepared in several ways.

Is okra the Rodney Dangerfield – who got “no respect” – of the botanical world? Not really. Although some adults superficially dislike this vegetable, other have discovered its value to enhance flavor and nutrition. Talk a walk on the wild side with okra like the folks of Irmo, S.C., do. You may find more benefits that the citizens of Central America, Africa, and Asia have found.

Note: Click here to see pictures taken during the Okra Strut in Irmo, S.C.

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