Known by several names, such as ladies fingers, bhindi, bendi, ochro, gombo, okoro and others, okra is one vegetable that is very nutritious. It is generally consumed when its pods are green, soft and young. Okra, scientific name Abelmoschus esculentus) is a flowering plant that is botanically a member of the Malvaceae (mallows) plant family.
People living in the tropical as well as warm temperate regions of the world cultivate this plant for its nourishing, fibrous fruits, also known as 'pods'. This plant grows excellently in soils containing rich manure and those that have a good drainage system. The okra plant bears several deep green hued pods that are anything between 5 cm and 15 cm long. The fruits of the plant are ready for harvesting in about 45 days to 60 day from the day of sowing the seeds of the plant. Small, rounded, moist and sticky, white colored seeds are set in vertical lines inside these pods. These pods are collected manually when they are just about to become mature and consumed in the form of a vegetable.
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Okra plants may be annual or even perennial and grow up to a height of two meters. This species is related to others like cocoa, cotton and hibiscus. The leaves of okra plant are about 10 cm to 20 cm in length and are lobed palmately (like the palm of a hand) and comprise five to seven lobes. The flowers of okra plant may be anything between 4 cm to 8 cm across, having five white or yellow petals. Frequently, the petals have a red or purple mark at their base.
Okra plants are propagated by their seeds. Prior to sowing, the seeds are immersed in water for the night and then sowed 1 cm to 2 cm deep into the soil. Usually, it takes anything between six days to three weeks for the seeds to germinate. Soaking the seeds overnight facilitates their germination. The seedling needs to be provided with enough water to survive. The pods of the plant quickly turn out to be woody and fibrous. In order to have the best edible okra it is essential to harvest the seed pods just within a week of the fruits being pollinated. The fruits are always collected when they are still young and consumed like a vegetable.
While there is some disagreement over the precise place of okra's origin, different people claim that it is native to South Asia, West Africa or Ethiopia. People who claim that okra has its origin in South Asia assert that the proposed parents of this species were from this region. On the other hand, those who claim that okra originated in West Africa indicate about the great assortment of the vegetable in that part of the world.
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During the 12th and the 13th centuries, the Egyptians as well as Moors used to call the okra plant as 'bamya', which suggests that the species had its origin in the east. It is assumed that the okra plant may possibly have been introduced into southwest Asia across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait or the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula, instead of north from India or across the Sahara. A Spanish Moor, who travelled to Egypt in 1216, had left behind an account of the plant, which is believed to be among the earliest description of the okra plant. He noted that the locals cultivated the plant and consumed its immature seed pods with their meals.
So, the okra plant probably spread to different regions of the world from Arabia. It is believed that first the plant was introduced in the region around the Mediterranean Sea and, subsequently, it spread eastward. By 1658, the okra plant had arrived in the Americas - thanks to the ships that plied the slaves for trade across the Atlantic. It is said to have been introduced into Brazil first. In 1686, the presence of the plant was documented in Suriname. Farmers in the compound farms located inside the rainforest of south-eastern Nigeria had developed a multi-crop system that helped to sustain the supply as well as constant production of a variety of foods. They achieved this by combining species having dissimilar maturity periods, for instance, bananas, cocoyams, cassava, plantains, okra, maize, melon, yams, pumpkin, leafy vegetables as well as an assortment of shrubs and trees. Of these, 60 species provided them with food products. What was important is the fact that this made sure that the people in the region received a balanced diet, in addition to lessening the requirement for storing foodstuff in a region where loss of foods following harvesting was quite high.
It is likely that the okra plant was introduced into the south-eastern region of North America during the early part of the 18th century for it was found that people residing as far north as in Philadelphia were cultivating this plant by 1748. In his writings, Thomas Jefferson has noted that by 1781 cultivation of the okra plant had become traditional in Virginia. By 1800, the plant was widely cultivated all over the southern regions of the United States. The different cultivars of the plant find first mention as early as in 1806.
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As okra contains elevated amounts of vitamin C, dietary fiber and folate, it soon became a very well accepted health food. This vegetable is also known to have a very high antioxidant content. In addition, okra is also an excellent plant source for essential minerals like calcium and potassium.
The seeds of okra are pressed to obtain edible oil having a greenish-yellow color. This vegetable oil has an agreeable flavour and aroma and contains elevated amounts of unsaturated fats like linoleic acid and oleic acid. The oil content in some seeds of okra varieties is substantially high, often about 40 per cent. In fact, the okra crops yield a high amount of edible oil.
The calorie content of the okra seed pods is very low. Precisely speaking, 100 grams of okra seed pods provide us with only 30 calories. In addition, they do not contain any cholesterol or saturated fat. On the other hand, this vegetable has a high content of vitamins, dietary fats and essential minerals and nutritionists frequently recommend okra to people who are keen of losing surplus body weight and are interested in programs that help to reduce weight.
As the okra pods have an elevated mucilaginous and fiber content, they are useful in smooth peristalsis of the food particles digested as well as in providing relief from constipation.
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Okra pods also enclose considerable quantities of vitamin A as well as flavonoid antioxidants like beta carotenes, lutein and xanthin. Okra is among the green vegetables containing the maximum amounts of such antioxidants. Vitamin A as well as these antioxidants are necessary for proper eyesight. In addition, vitamin A is also necessary for maintaining the health of our skin and mucus membranes. Eating natural fruits as well as vegetables having high flavonoid content is helpful in protecting our oral cavity and lungs from cancer.
Fresh okra pods also contain high amount of folates; 100 grams of young, green pods supply us with as much as 22 per cent of our required daily allowance (RDA). Consuming foods that contain high amounts of folates, particularly during the period before conception, helps in diminishing the chances of developing defects in the neural tube in newborns.
The pods of okra or gumbo are also a very good resource of the antioxidant vitamin - vitamin C, which supplies us with roughly 36 per cent of the RDA. Findings of studies propose that consuming vitamin C rich foods aids the body to improve its immunity against contagious agents, lessen the chances of catching cold and cough as well as protect our body against the detrimental free radicals.
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Okra is one vegetable that contains high amount of B-complex vitamins, such as pyridoxine (vitamin B6), thiamine (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3) and pantothenic acid (vitamin B5). The okra pods also enclose considerable quantities of vitamin K, which is actually a co-factor for the enzymes that help in blood clot formation. Vitamin K is also necessary for reinforcing our bones.
All things produced by the okra plant are moist and sticky (mucilaginous) and yielding the typical sludge or sticky stuff when you cook the seed pods. In fact, the mucilage encloses an usable type of soluble fiber. While a number of people prefer cooking okra in this method, there are others who like to reduce the stickiness; maintaining the pods in one piece, and cook them briefly - for instance, stir-frying them help to obtain this. In addition, you may also cook okra with acidic items like tomatoes, some lemon juice drops or vinegar, as this will also help to reduce the vegetable's sliminess.
On the other hand, you may cut the okra pods into thin slices and cook them for an extended period, as this will help to dissolve the mucilage. In fact, the leaves of the plant can also be cooked and used in the form of a strong thickener for soups. The young seed pods may also be used to prepare pickle.
Okra is a favoured vegetable in Indian as well as Pakistani preparations, where people cut the seed pods into small pieces and stir fry them together with spices, salt and pickles or add preparations that are gravy-based to it, for instance, sambar and bhindi ghosht. Sometimes, people also simmer the okra seeds pods in curries based on coconut or toss them in pounded mustard seeds. People in India also use this vegetable in curries. While preparing curries, the okra seed pods are used intact, trimming just the excess stalk and retaining the firm pointed top, which is disposed of while eating the dish. People in the southern regions of India, cut okra into small round pieces roughly 1/4 inch in thickness and stick fry them with salt plus pepper powder in oil to prepare a delectable dish. On the other hand, when okra is used in sambar, the vegetable is cut into much larger pieces, roughly about one inch in thickness, with a view to thwart it from getting dissolved when the sambar is simmered.
In Malaysia, people generally use okra as a part of their yong tau foo cuisine, which is characteristically packed with surimi, a processed fish, and simmered with some selected vegetables and tofu. This preparation is served in a soup along with noodles.
People in Malawi like okra in cooked and stir fried form. They add sodium bicarbonate to the vegetable to make the preparation additionally slimy. Subsequently, the dish is consumed with pap (nsima) prepared from unprocessed maize flour and/ or maize husks flour.
In the Caribbean islands, people consume okra in soups, which is called jambo in Curacao. This particular soup is mainly prepared using the mucilage of okra. Often, jambo is prepared by adding fish, while they prepare a dish called funchi by boiling okra seed pod mucilage and cornmeal together in water. People in Haiti cook okra together with rice as well as maize, which is used in the form of a sauce for meat. Okra is known as quimbombó in Cuba and they prepare a favourite stew which includes okra as the main ingredient.
It is interesting to note that many regional 'signature' cuisines include okra as their main ingredient. For instance, a dish known as frango com quiabo (prepared using okra and chicken) is a very popular dish in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil. In addition, okra forms the primary ingredient of a bahian food called caruru. This cuisine is prepared using okra and dende oil. People all over the United States' Gulf Coast as well as in South Carolina Low country take delight in a special okra dish called gumbo, which is energetic stew containing okra as the primary ingredient. People residing in the southern regions of the United States extensively consume okra by coating it with flour, cornmeal and other similar substances and frying them in shallow or deep oil.
In fact, okra is quite popular among the people of the Caribbean islands. The national dish of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean islands called callaloo also contains okra as its main ingredient. In addition, it is used in coucou (used with turned cornmeal) - the national cuisine of Barbados. Okra is also a popular vegetable in Nigeria. People in this country prepare a draw soup that is generally consumed with cassava or garri.
People of Vietnam in Asia use okra as a vital ingredient in their favourite cuisine called canh chua.
You may cook the leaves of okra plant in the way you cook dandelions or the green leaves of beets. In fact, the whole okra plant is edible and often the leaves are used in salads and consumed raw. In addition, the seeds of okra can be roasted and pounded to produce a coffee substitute that is bereft of caffeine.
While purchasing okra you should be careful to select the most superior quality okra for cooking, as occasionally purchasing inferior quality okra pods may not only make it difficult to prepare the vegetable, but also make the food's taste horrible.
It is advisable that you should always buy crunchy and young okra pods. Also ensure that you buy small okra pods, because they not only taste better, but are tender too. Stay away from large pods and search for okra pods having dark green color. Be careful not to buy very mature okra pods or those that have cuts and spots. It is possible to store this vegetable in good condition for two days provided you keep it in a fridge. Storing okra for more than two days makes the vegetable lose much of its nutritional value.
Hence, always select young and crunchy okra pods. In addition, consume this vegetable on a regular basis to obtain all health benefits offered by it.