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Okra – one of Africa's oldest foods

Do you eat okra, or as it’s sometimes called "lady’s fingers”? The young green seed pods of the okra plant are among the oldest vegetables in the world; they’re an important ingredient in African and Asian cuisine.

Origin, appearance and health benefits

Botanically, okra belongs to the mallow family and originated in Africa. Today, it is grown in many tropical and subtropical areas, with India and Nigeria the major producing countries. The shrub can grow over two meters high and the fruit pods up to 15 cm long. The pods are harvested immature, later on they become woody. They are slim, green and angular, covered in fluffy hair and running to a point. The whole pod is edible, including the small, pale seeds in the fruit chambers. Okra is extremely low calorie and it contains provitamin A and vitamins B and C, as well as minerals such as calcium and iron.

Cooking with okra

First wash and drain the pods, cut off the stalk and the dry tip. After that okra can be prepared in many ways. You can mix raw okra, thinly sliced, with tomatoes, onions and coriander to make a tasty salad. Boiling, roasting or stewing produces a mild-aromatic vegetable, slightly reminiscent of green beans. But you’ll also notice a slightly tart, sour note. Okra makes a good side dish for meat, fish and seafood and is often used in mixed vegetable stir fries or in a hot curry. The pods contain a milky slime, which seeps out during cooking and acts as a thickener, like cornflour. This makes them an ideal way of thickening soups, stews and sauces. If you don’t want this to happen, and cool it briefly in cold water. Or you could soak it for a few minutes in cold water to which you’ve added a good squeeze of lemon juice.

What to watch out for when buying okra

The best place to find okra is in specialist African and Asian shops. Choose okra pods that are green, crisp and not more than 10 cm long. Avoid pods that are shrivelled or tough-looking. You can also buy okra canned or even dried. Dried pods must be soaked in water for 24 hours preparatory to cooking.

 

Source: Heike Kreutz, www.bzfe.de