Love it or hate it

Facts about the divisive okra

At a glance

  • Okra is an illustrative example in the Columbian Exchange, a transformative period of global exchange of plants, animals, cultures, and ideas between the Old World and the New World following Christopher Columbus’ voyages in the late 15th century.

Okra is a vegetable that divides people. One either loves or hates okra. In the Philippines, it is a standard ingredient in sinigang and pinakbet. In the US, okra is the star of Cajun and Creole cuisine, with signature dishes gumbo and jambalaya featuring okra.

Okra was brought to the US from Africa via the transatlantic slave route between the 16th and 19th centuries. Historians noted that in some cases, African women “braided seeds into their hair before being forced to board slave ships.” Through the slave trade, okra made its way from West Africa to the US and became a staple, specifically in southern cooking.

Okra is important in other diasporic cuisines as well. When cut open, its pods produce a slimy mucus. Because of its slimy nature, okra was first used by white slave owners to thicken soups. Thus, Créole gumbo, which itself is another name for okra, developed in Louisiana. Okra is also absolutely delicious fried— the crisp, battered exterior balances out the sliminess.

Okra is an illustrative example in the Columbian Exchange, a transformative period of global exchange of plants, animals, cultures, and ideas between the Old World and the New World following Christopher Columbus’ voyages in the late 15th century.

This period marked the transfer of crops and cultures that had a profound impact on the agricultural and culinary landscapes of both hemispheres. The vegetable thrived in the warm climates of the Americas, contributing to the development of a variety of dishes that became staples in African, African American, and southern cuisines. Okra is rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, making it a valuable addition to diets in both the Old and New Worlds. Its mucilaginous texture, often a point of culinary debate, served as a thickening agent in soups and stews, contributing to the diversity of culinary techniques.

Beyond its culinary impact, okra became a symbol of cultural exchange, blending African, Native American, and European influences. Its adaptability to diverse climates contributed to its widespread cultivation. Its popularity extended to Europe and Asia, where it was embraced for its nutritional value and culinary versatility. The introduction of okra during the Columbian Exchange not only reshaped culinary landscapes but also fostered cultural diversity and enriched agricultural practices.

Okra as coffee substitute 

Okra seeds can be a great substitute for coffee. You can dry, grind, and roast them to make a replacement for coffee, and the taste is reportedly not that far off from traditional coffee. The best part is that, unlike the ones made from actual coffee grounds, this okra coffee is caffeine-free and won’t keep you up at night. In the midst of the American Civil War, coffee was scarce and expensive, so people began looking for possible alternatives. It turns out that mature okra seeds proved to be the best substitute they could find. These plants were cheap and easy to cultivate and harvest, leaving coffee lovers satisfied without breaking the bank. The Atlantic slave trade brought the plants to the Americas, where the earliest accounts say that they thrived in Brazil by 1658. The plants also arrived in southeastern North America by the early 18th century, coming all the way from Africa. In 1781, Thomas Jefferson stated that the plant was already thriving in Virginia. The plant became a common vegetable in the Southern US by the year 1800.

Reducing slime

One of the biggest drawbacks of okra for many people is that the seed pods can have a rather slimy or gooey texture when cooked. This may be unpleasant for some and can certainly throw off unwitting palates. For some people, this mucilage is one of okra’s more desirable characteristics, but a lot of people would prefer to eat it without the slime. To reduce its slimy texture, you can cook it alongside acidic ingredients such as tomatoes, lemon, or vinegar. 

Cooking it quickly (as in grilling and deep-frying) can also help in bringing down the slime. Okra’s slime may not be the best texture on its own, but it does have its own unique uses. In fact, this characteristic slime makes it a key ingredient in many soups, stews, and sauces. A notable example of this is gumbo, a favorite dish in the Southern US. Heating it for a longer period of time makes the mucilage more viscous, giving the sauce a thicker texture.

Health partner

Despite being low on calories, okra is a rich source of vitamins and minerals. It’s high in vitamin C and vitamin K, which can help protect the body against scurvy, immune deficiencies, and uncontrolled bleeding. Just 100 grams of okra can meet 28 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin C and 30 percent for vitamin K. It’s also a great source of magnesium, potassium, and manganese.

Rich in antioxidants

Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals and stop them from damaging our cells. The human body can make its own antioxidants, but diet can also play a significant role in getting these important compounds. Another great aspect of okra is that it is a rich source of flavonoids and isoquercetin, which are antioxidant compounds. This means that this slimy yet helpful food item can help protect against the cell damage that free radicals can cause.

Blood sugar level

Scientists found that some compounds in okra can help in the management of blood sugar levels. Through these compounds, it can help slow down the absorption of glucose by the intestines. By so doing, okra can aid in lowering blood sugar levels.

Wastewater treatment

Okra’s slime can help treat wastewater. Wastewater treatment facilities typically use flocculation to clean wastewater and prevent water pollution. In the process of flocculation, waste particles stick to one another into clumps or flocs. The clumps of waste material can then either float to the surface or sink underwater, which the treatment facilities can then filter out before releasing the water back to the rivers or the sea. Studies show that the slime of okra can help facilitate this process.

Biodegradable packaging

Okra’s characteristic slime can one day pave the way to biodegradable and sustainable food packaging. Films made out of the slime of okra have the potential to replace plastic food packaging. These biodegradable films are compact, low in solubility, and non-toxic.

Rich source of fiber 

Okra is rich in dietary fiber, which is helpful for easing digestion, promoting a healthy gut, and relieving constipation. People who are aiming for weight loss can also benefit from this type of fiber because it helps make people feel fuller after meals, reducing the need to eat more. 

Skin moisturizer 

Okra pods can also act as great topical moisturizers for your skin and hair. Boil okra first, until it’s soft and slimy. After letting it cool, you can then mash it and apply it on your skin and hair. This will help your skin and hair feel smoother and more refreshed. Additionally, it may also be effective against pimples and acne.