04 February 2011

An unexpected okra treat

“Okra is an annual flowering hibiscus (Abelmoschus esculentus) native to Africa. Its flowers, whose bright yellow petals deepen to rich burgundy red at their base, are some of the loveliest of all the hibiscuses. Of course, okra isn't grown for its ornamental qualities, but for the mucilaginous seedpods that develop after the brilliant flower has faded.”

Okra, the seedpod of an annual hibiscus plant

That's how Damon Lee Fowler introduces the Southern U.S. specialty vegetable okra in his book Classical Southern Cooking. Okra (a collective noun) is actually a fruit (like the tomato) and is known by the plural count noun « gombos » in French, but is not much known in France at all. It's something we don't find here in Saint-Aignan — at least I never have.

Here's a close-up of the okra pods...

However, a friend of ours went to Blois the other day and went shopping in a grocery store called Grand Frais. It's a new shop and I haven't been there yet. What our friend found was a bin full of gombos — fresh okra. She was kind enough to buy about a pound of nice fresh okra pods for us and leave them by our front door later that afternoon.

She told me on the phone that evening that okra isn't something she and her husband eat, but she knew I did because she remembered reading about okra on this blog.

...and here's what the okra looks like when you slice them.

“We tend to think of this vegetable as peculiarly Southern and African-American,” Damon Fowler writes, “but it can be found in Central and South America wherever Africans were settled and is also known to the cooking of the Middle East.” Well known is the Louisiana seafood stew called “gumbo,” in which okra serves as a flavoring and natural thickening ingredient.

Sliced okra cooking with wedges of yellow tomatoes and
red tomato sauce, along with onions and garlic

I've blogged about okra before (2010 and 2009, for example), and pointed out that a woman I knew and went to university with in Paris back in the 1970s surprised me one day when she cooked what she called bamia or bamies — it was okra. And the woman who cooked them lived in the city of Thessaloniki in Greece when she wasn't studying French in Paris.

I may soon have to stop stating so categorically that okra is hard to come by in France. I haven't yet found it, fresh or frozen, in our Saint-Aignan SuperU or Noyers-sur-Cher Intermarché, however, or in the farmers' markets. It seems to be sold only in specialty stores, in the cities.

This is the stewed okra and tomatoes you end up with.

Okra is good pickled in vinegar; dredged in cornmeal and deep-fried; stewed and served with rice; or, my favorite way, cooked with tomato sauce and chunks of tomato and onions.

I made okra and tomatoes yesterday, using sliced onions, sliced garlic, a pinch of dried thyme, and a pinch of hot red pepper flakes. It needs lots of salt and pepper, of course, as well as the one ingredient that makes the dish very Southern (the U.S. South, I mean) and also typically French: fried smoked bacon or lardons fumés, along with some of their cooking fat.

And here's a close-up. The okra seeds are tender, not hard.

We'll eat the okra and tomatoes not with rice but pasta — linguine, specifically — and an escalope de dinde à la milanaise. That's a thin slice of turkey breast that is breaded — in my case, just dredged in cornmeal — and panned in butter. Turkey scallopini, I guess, is the term used in American English — we call so many foods by more or less Italian names.

The okra and tomatoes will make a good sauce for the pasta and for the turkey. “The pairing of these two vegetables has all the makings of a great love story...,” Damon Fowler writes. “What they do for each other must be tasted to be understood; tomatoes lend their sunny tartness while the okra, in turn, enrobes with its silken texture, blunting the [tomatoes’] acid bite...”

Here's the recipe from Fowler's Classical Southern Cooking book:

Notice that I didn't use the S-word even once in this post. Happy eating!


  1. You usually end up having to make do with frozen okra, don't you? How great of your friend to pick up this fresh okra for you!


  2. I suppose that fresh okra was from somewhere in Africa, non? I bet it was good with the pasta and turkey.

  3. Brits might be familiar with it as 'ladies fingers'. It is often used in Indian and Pakistani cooking so you see it on Indian restaurant menus in the UK.

  4. Ken

    Petite histoire pour vous:

    "L'okra ou "lalo" en Kréol poussait à l'état sauvage sur les rives alluviales du Nil et ce sont les Égyptiens qui en firent les premiers la culture dans le bassin du Nil. Il se propagea ensuite à travers l'Afrique du Nord et gagna le bassin méditerranéen et l'Inde. Il arriva ensuite en Amérique, au Brésil, en Guinée avant de s'étendre aux Etats-Unis. Le gombo, aussi appelé okra, a été introduit en Amérique par les esclaves noirs venus d'Afrique. Ceux qui venaient de la "Côte d'Or" l'appelaient "nkruman," dont la déformation a donné beaucoup plus tard le mot "okra"; ceux d'Angola le nommaient "ngumbo" qui devint "gombo" et dont le terme est aussi utilisé pour désigner un ragoût ou un potage à base de gombos."

    From a pamphlet on fruits and veggies I got from the island .

  5. Maybe you would like to have a go at trying a recipe from my wife's native Sierra Leone. Okra cooked in palm oil is the principal ingredient of what is known there as 'Okra Soup' This is a bit of a misnomer because it's actually a very tasty stew. We are very lucky here as we have three Grand Frais within 45 mins of us. We often buy exotic fruit and veg from Africa and India. If you want to try our recipe here is the link http://rendez-vous-riberac.blogspot.com/2010/11/mammy-queens-okra-soup.html

  6. First, a clarification. The "S-word" I mentioned has 5 letters, not 4, and the second letter is an L.

    Evelyn, our friend said the okra came from Nicaragua.

    Thanks, Niall and Antoinette, for the info. Beaver too — very interesting.

    Paul, I'll look that recipe up and try it the next time I find some okra.

  7. OK, the s-word reference had me baffled - thanks for the hint. Now I'm thinking it describes the, uh, texture of cooked okra that some find objectionable.

  8. I knew exactly what you meant by the S word, Ken. I like fried okra but no other way, although I have to admit that the dish you made looks very good and not S....y at all.


  9. I grew up in Texas and fried okra was a staple in every cafeteria.

  10. Diogenes, the last few times I've had fried okra in restaurants in North Carolina, I've been disappointed. It's been tasteless. So I like okra cooked with tomatoes better.

    John, sorry to be confusing. It only dawned on me that "S-word" was open to all kinds of interpretations many hours after my post was written.

  11. Okay - I'm at a loss to come up with the four-letter "S" word, but the only time I had okra it was indeed slimy and hence the last time I had okra...

  12. Did you see Elise's recipe today for stuffed jalapenos? I wonder if you could do the same with okra. By the way, it took me seconds to figure out what the s-word was, even before reading the hints. Gave me a chuckle.

  13. Of course the S word was unfortunate since a have a very bad "tournure d'esprit," but of course it was a FIVE letter word, not the dreaded FOUR. LOL

    I love okra, but even though I've seen it cultivated here, I've never seen it at the market. Where does it go?

    Cousine, commentaire très intéressant. Merci.

  14. Mary and BettyAnn, okra cooked with tomatoes is not slimy at all. The sticky okra sap dissolves into the tomato juice and forms a sauce with a good texture.

    Cheryl, I've never thought about stuffed okra pods. I'm not sure it would be easy to do but I bet it could be good.

    CHM, I imagine the okra you see growing gets sold in neighborhoods in California and all over the U.S. where people appreciate okra. I want to try the beef stew with okra that Paul posted about, but I have to wait until I find okra again.

  15. I can't get past the texture of okra.

  16. Sweetpea, the closest Auchan is 25 miles/40 km distant. I don't just run up there on the off chance...


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?