August 13th, 2013
11:30 AM ET
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Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Today's contributor, Virginia Willis, is the author of cookbooks "Bon Appétit, Y’all" and "Basic to Brilliant, Y’all." She is a contributing editor to Southern Living and a frequent contributor to Taste of the South. She also wrote Eatocracy's most-commented post of all time.

In this series for the Southern Foodways Alliance, I am examining iconic Southern foods that so completely belong to summer that if you haven’t relished them before Labor Day, you should consider yourself deprived of the entire season. My plan is to share a little history and a few recipes that I hope you will enjoy.

This week, it’s all about okra.

Ok, I know, I know. Stop. You either love okra or you absolutely hate it, and you’ve already decided to click away. Stay. Please, please stay. I’ve got this, really, I do. Okra is the new asparagus. Seriously. I’m certain of it.

I’m an official okra missionary. I am here to convert—and I can even help you past the slime. Coincidentally, I’ve recently written an entire book about okra for The University of North Carolina Press series called "Savor the South" that will be out in spring 2014. Other ingredients that are featured in the series include tomatoes, buttermilk, pecans and sweet potatoes. The deal is, I asked for this crazy, argumentative topic. I chose okra over bourbon! And, through this blog post for SFA you have a sneak peak at what I’ve learned becoming one with okra.

This is what I know: Okra is a controversial vegetable. It is as much a part of Southern cuisine as collard greens and fried chicken. But in the Southern kitchen, it is far more controversial. Folks love okra or they hate it. No one - veritably no one - is in the middle.

I also know this: Okra lovers passionately love okra in all manners of all shapes and forms. Boiled, fried, steamed, grilled, broiled, pickled, whole, sliced and julienned. I love it raw in a salad. You name it, okra lovers love okra. Those who hate it think it’s slimy, gooey and gummy. Some even go as far to call it “mucilaginous ick.”

In my opinion, they haven’t met the right okra.

According to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, African slaves brought okra across the Atlantic Ocean during the slave trading era. Little is known about the early history and distribution of okra, but it is thought to have originated in equatorial Africa. It eventually made its way into Northern Africa, the Mediterranean and India before its journey across the Atlantic to the New World.

Okra is a main component in gumbo. There are two main considerations for the etymology of the word “gumbo.” The first suggests that in Bantu, the language family of Southern Africa, which includes Swahili, okra is called ngumbo, and this is where gumbo originates. The second is that “gumbo” is believed to be a corruption of the Portuguese corruption, quingombo, or the word quillobo, native name for the plant in the Congo and Angola.

Okra is not, however, solely found in the American South or in Africa. The ancient routes by which okra was taken from central Africa to Egypt to the eastern Mediterranean and to India is not certain, but we do know that okra is found in abundance in three major areas today - East Africa, India and Southeast Asia. It is also found in pockets in the Caribbean, as well as in South America.

One thing is for certain: If the weather is hot, okra will grow.

There are actually 50 species of wild and cultivated okra around the world. According to the USDA, okra grows best in zones 4a through 11 in the United States. One acre of okra usually produces 200 to 250 bushels of okra, or approximately 600 to 750 pounds. That is a lot of gumbo! Depending on the variety, the plant will tower up to 12 feet in the Southern garden. Clemson Spineless is the favorite hybrid of Southern gardeners, but many heirloom varieties are reemerging from the garden shed, including Star of David, a stumpy star-shaped pod; Hill Country Red, a vivid velvety red okra from Texas; and Perkins Mammoth Long Pod, an okra varietal that produces pods up to 16 inches in length - and still tastes good!

On that note, most okra doesn’t taste good when it’s that long; it becomes tough and woody. In general, look for young, small pods no longer than 4 inches, depending on the variety. There is a reason okra is called ladyfingers in some countries. Seek out pods smaller than a lady’s finger! At the market, buy okra that is firm, unblemished and brightly colored. Green is the most common color available, but you may also find red or deep burgundy varieties, even pale green, almost white, especially at local farmers markets. Make sure to avoid limp, bruised, blemished and moldy pods.

To get you started, here are my top five tips to get you past the slime, followed by a very unorthodox grilled gumbo that keeps the both the slime - and time - factor to a minimum.

Top Five Slime Busting Tips:

  1. Choose small pods.
  2. Wash and dry okra very, very thoroughly.
  3. Don’t cut okra into pieces; cook whole pods.
  4. Add an acid like tomato, lemon juice, vinegar or wine when cooking.
  5. Overcooking produces more slime! Don’t overcook okra.

Grilled Shrimp and Okra “Gumbo”
Serves 6

Leave the soup pot in the cupboard! Succulent shrimp and spicy Andouille sausage team up with sweet onion, tomatoes and okra for a delicious dish that tastes like gumbo but doesn’t take hours to cook. This dish is going to absolutely knock your socks off.

1 pound large shrimp (21-25 count), peeled and deveined
12 ounces fully cooked Andouille sausage, halved lengthwise
1 pint grape tomatoes
12 ounces finger-size okra, stems trimmed
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, sliced into 1/4-inch rings
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into strips
1 poblano or green bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into quarters
1/4 cup pure olive oil
2 teaspoons Creole or Cajun seasoning, plus more to taste
1/4 cup ketchup, warmed
4 green onions, white and pale green parts only, chopped
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hot cooked rice, for serving

Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn on all burners to high, close the lid and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.

Combine the shrimp, sausage, tomatoes, okra, onion and bell peppers in a large bowl. Add the oil and Creole seasoning, and toss to coat the ingredients. Thread the shrimp, tomatoes, okra and pepper onto separate skewers. (The onions can go directly on the grill.) Or, use a grilling basket instead of skewers for the vegetables.

Place the vegetables on the hottest part of the grill. Arrange the sausage over slightly cooler heat and the shrimp at the edges of the grill. Cook, turning once or twice, until the shrimp is opaque, the sausage is heated through and the vegetables are tender and slightly charred, 8 to 10 minutes (the shrimp will take less time to cook). Slice the sausage, onion and bell peppers into bite-size pieces, then transfer them, along with the other ingredients, to a large bowl.

Toss the meat and vegetable mixture with the warmed ketchup and green onions. Cover the mixture tightly with plastic wrap and let the vegetables steam and wilt slightly, about 5 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap from the bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper and Creole seasoning to your liking. Ladle over cooked rice in warmed serving bowls. Serve immediately.

Read more at the Southern Foodways Alliance's blog

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soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Cjohns

    I'm sorry, I live in the deep south, I like Okra but this statement is absolutly wrong "Okra is a main component in gumbo" a matter or fact MOST Gumbo's from the south do not contain Okra. Okra CAN be an component in gumbo would be accurate. Gumbos contain shrimp, chicken, pork or beef sausage and SOMETIMES Okra.

    August 16, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  2. bill

    Love Love it. Okra Its a secret of the South, like Grits. I love OKRA fried burnt..crunchy goodness. I love it boiled with tomato's with a little splenda sprinkled on it too.

    August 14, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
  3. cali girl

    stringy blob of a mess. no thank you.

    August 14, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
  4. Thinking things through

    Always loved okra, even as a child. The only way I've disliked it was when it was cut into 1/2 inch or smaller bites and breaded with thick breading, and deep fat fried. That was a waste of good vegetation.

    August 14, 2013 at 6:21 am |
  5. VladT

    Never tried it, not because of slimy characteristics, but growing up on the west coast, it really wasn't offered that much in most of the diverse cuisines available in the Los Angeles area.

    So, besides slimy....what does it taste like? Comparison to other veggies?

    August 14, 2013 at 2:59 am |
    • AleeD®

      It's a great thickening agent for gumbo. Use more okra, less rice and you won't have that texture problem most people have.

      August 14, 2013 at 7:34 am |
    • bookman

      I think it tastes similar to asparagus. I can only tolerate it when its part of a stew such as gumbo.
      Otherwise, Blechhhh!!!

      August 14, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
    • jh

      I like okra when it's cooked indian style. I especially love it stuffed and you eat it with roti, but I still enjoy it when it's cut up and fried with those indian spices. I would look at all the different continents that grow okra and look at the native cuisine and then pick a cuisine/preparation that you like. For example – I don't like slimy so I wouldn't like okra in gumbo.

      August 28, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
  6. Michallangelo

    At first I thought it said 'Oprah' and I thought,"you wanna eat Oprah,how could you?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!? She's an icon and an inspiration to billions of people around the planet EArth!!!!"

    August 13, 2013 at 9:32 pm |
    • VladT

      To Billions? Let's not speak hyperbole now.........

      August 14, 2013 at 2:58 am |
      • AleeD®

        Thank God school starts soon.

        August 14, 2013 at 7:32 am |
    • Doofy@Michallangelo

      are you completely baked right now?

      August 14, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  7. Maddy Cooke

    It is true that okra is not only an American South or African food. I come from the Philippines and my grandma regularly made meatball (pork, actually) rice noodle soup with okra. I love that soup, but not the okra (hey, I was a kid). There's also a mixed vegetable dish that has fermented shrimp paste and okra. Back then, I can't get past the sliminess. I am going give your tips a try!

    August 13, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
  8. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Hate it. Tastes like I'm sticking my tongue up someone's nose.

    August 13, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
    • Michallangelo

      Sheesh,do you troll the Eatocracy boards all day and night,Mr. McHammerpants?

      August 13, 2013 at 9:32 pm |
      • VladT

        Trolling implies he has nothing good to contribute, so I would say...

        "No, he does not."

        August 14, 2013 at 2:57 am |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫


        August 14, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Notta Troll Lyk U

      Know a lot about that particular taste, moron? The problem is that you don't even know how stupid you sound. You're not funny, just immature and disgusting.

      August 14, 2013 at 7:16 am |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

        Must take a lot of energy to walk around mad all day.

        August 14, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
        • VladT

          Not enough fiber? Perhaps he should eat more okra......

          August 14, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
  9. Truth™

    I thought she retired...

    August 13, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • AleeD®

      Nah. Just moooved on to greener pastures.

      August 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • Weeds

      Didn't she just launch a new movie?

      August 13, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
      • Turth™@Weeds

        Actually, I think she is in a movie that premieres this weekend. Also making a stink about some racist store clerk in Switzerland or something. I think she is just missing the spotlight. She has always struck me in the same manner as Paris Hilton, or any of the Kardashians...Famous for no apparent reason.

        August 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
        • Michallangelo

          Um,she's famous because SHE'S AN IVON AND HAS DONE GOOD ACROS THE WORLD!!!!!!!!! WHERE have you been??????

          Here,eduate yourself

          August 13, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
        • AleeD®@Mike

          Gee Mike. Are you Russian? Why get all worked up over Okra Wimpy being an Ivon? That's a Russian icon, right?

          August 14, 2013 at 7:30 am |
        • Wakka Wakka@Michallangelo

          She's an Ivon? Why didn't you say so! She must be Ivon the Terrible!

          And do you always write so poorly, or are you blogging while drunk again?

          August 14, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
        • Thread Patrol@Mike

          That's it buddy. By the power of the opinion of the majority of people on this thread, you're under arrest for BWI, blogging while intoxicated.

          August 14, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
        • ALSO...

          In addition to his inability to spell ICON, he also can't even spell MICHELANGELO correctly.


          August 14, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
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