Okra falls in the category of “most hated vegetables.” Okra pods are mucilaginous and produce a slimy mucilage, just like you find in aloe vera plants. Those with an aversion to okra may like to learn there are techniques for reducing sliminess. Some varieties of okra, like Asian Jing Orange, are not as slimy as their green counterparts.
Native to Ethiopia, okra is a member of the mallow family, which includes cotton, hibiscus, rose of Sharon and hollyhock. It is the only member of the mallow family to bear edible fruit.
Okra is popular in Egypt, Morocco, India, Africa, the Caribbean, South America, the Middle East and southern United States. Once considered an “ethnic food,” it is now becoming a chic vegetable, especially with increased interest in the local food movement.
Okra was cultivated in tropical and warm temperate regions. It is among the most heat and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world. It grows well in heavy clay soils. Okra is popular in the southern states, but there is no reason we should miss out on this vegetable in West Virginia where it is easily grown during the summer months. Naturally, frost puts an end to the season here.
Most people are familiar with green okra, but there are red varieties, too, which taste the same. Red okra even turns green when cooked.
Okra is rich in nutrients. It provides a lot of protein, healthy fats, fiber, magnesium, calcium, potassium and vitamins. It is especially high in vitamins C, A, B and K, which help boost the immune system. It contains highly beneficial antioxidants that fend off free radicals. When consumed regularly, okra is said to improve heart health. It is a low-carb vegetable. One cup contains only 36 calories.
Numerous studies say okra is beneficial for diabetics, because it helps manage blood sugar. A new trend is to drink “okra water” to lessen diabetes symptoms. The drink is made by putting okra pods in water and soaking them overnight. Some of the valuable nutrients transfer to the water.
This method is a simple way to derive benefits from okra without eating the pods, although the water can be slightly bitter. Powdered okra seeds are sold in health food stores as a supplement to help with diabetes.
Studies have shown that okra can keep cholesterol levels at bay. The mucilage in okra pods binds to cholesterol during the digestive process in the body causing the body to excrete added cholesterol rather than absorbing it.
Okra contains lectin, a protein that some breast cancer and melanoma studies say can inhibit the growth of cancer cells. As a cautionary note with any treatment plan, one should consult a physician before embarking on a holistic therapy using okra.
In addition to eating the pods, young okra leaves can be cooked in the same way one would cook beet or dandelion greens. They can also be eaten raw in salads.
Okra seeds can be roasted and ground to make a caffeine-free substitute for coffee. When the importation of coffee was disrupted during the Civil War, an article in the Austin State Gazette encouraged plantation growers to sow an acre of okra to make an ancillary beverage, when coffee wasn’t available.
Okra oil can be pressed from okra seeds. It is said to have a good odor and taste, and it is high in unsaturated fats. A 2009 study indicated that okra oil is suitable for use as a biofuel.
Okra even has industrial uses. The bast fiber from the stem can be used as reinforcement of polymer composites, and the mucilage can be used to remove turbidity from wastewater due to its flocculent properties.
With all of its great qualities, isn’t it time to plant more okra in West Virginia? Even if you don’t plan to eat it, red okra makes a showy specimen in your garden or landscape. Hopefully, the beautiful pods will provide inspiration to conquer your fear of eating okra. Here are a few okra recipes to encourage you.