What is okra?
A tropical vegetable with distinctive, tender pods and edible seeds, okra features in dishes from India to the Middle East. Gumbo, a signature dish of the Caribbean and southern USA, is a stew showcasing brightly-coloured okra infused with the favours of chilli, tomato, seafood and chicken or other meat.
Okra can withstand extreme heat and drought conditions, although frosts can damage the pods. Okra originated in Africa, possibly Ethiopia, and was grown in the 12th century by the ancient Egyptians. The vegetable appeared in the USA in the 1700s.
In Australia, the olive-green coloured okra is the most common variety available. Sometimes a purple-red variety is also available.
Why okra are good to eat
- Okra is an excellent source of vitamins C and K (important for helping your blood to clot).
- It is also a good source of thiamine (vitamin B1), folate (vitamin B9) and vitamin B6.
- Okra contains dietary fibre, which is important for a healthy bowel.
- It also contains minerals such as potassium (which helps to regulate blood pressure), calcium and magnesium.
- Energy – 100 g of okra supplies 85 kJ.
How are they grown and harvested?
Okra seeds start to germinate between six days and three weeks after planting in the soil. The seedlings require plenty of water to grow. Okra plants grow rapidly and are ready to harvest in 11 to 14 weeks. The seed pods can become fibrous, tough and woody, so pick the okra within four or five days of the plant flowering (its flowers look like those of the hibiscus).
The plant can be prickly and scratchy so it is best to use gloves and secateurs when it is time to harvest your crop.
Choose small okra (less than 10 cm long) with smooth, small pods. Large okra can tend to be stringy and not as tasty. Okra should be dry, firm and dark green and snap easily in half. Avoid pods that have dark or soft spots or look dry and shrivelled or mouldy. If the tops of the okra are dark this means that they have been in storage for too long and they are not fresh.
How to store and keep okra
Store okra in a vegetable storage bag in the crisper section of your fridge. Okra will keep for up to three days if stored this way.
How to use
- The sticky juice that appears when okra pods are sliced is excellent for thickening soups and stews.
- Sauté okra in oil with garlic, onion and chopped tomatoes – top with fresh chopped parsley, add a squeeze of lemon and serve as a side dish to accompany lamb or chicken.
- Add a hint of India to your evening meal – cook okra in oil until golden and toss in a cooked spicy mixture of crushed coriander, cumin seeds, garam masala and chilli flakes, then serve with a yoghurt dip.
- Coat okra in a light tempura batter (egg yolk, iced water, plain flour) and deep fry until golden – a scrumptious, crunchy side dish to go with a main meal.
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