Okra is an unusual vegetable to those who haven't tried it, and a fond favorite to many who grew up with it
Okra is an important dish in the American South, as well as India and much of Africa.
As far as southern dishes go, it is the a ingredient in gumbo. Okra grows really well in the American south, it loves the hot intense summers. It does equally well in a Southern California garden. In gumbo, okra is used as a thickener. Okra has mucilage, a sugar substance that gives it a gooey texture. Done right, in a stew like gumbo, it acts as a thickener.
Some people who are new to gumbo are off-put by the mucilage which is a sort of slimy substance. Those people don't need to avoid okra entirely! My wife is Indian, okra, or bindhi, is one of her favorite vegetables. And she cooks it either of two ways. One is stewed in tomatoes, the other way is dry, where there is no detectable slime.
Okra is an old-world vegetable. It's not clear whether it originated in West Africa, Ethiopia or South Asia. It has been grown around the Mediterranean since at least as far back as the 13th century. It was first brought to America in 1658 and well established here by 1781.
Growing and harvesting
Okra is a mallow family plant, evidenced by it's large, beautiful flower that is very similar looking to hibiscus. It's a heat loving plant, it does very well in tropical and mediterranean climates.
In places that freeze, okra is grown as an annual, but it is actually a perennial. In California, you can keep it around for several years. When it gets to about 6 feet tall, cut it back to rejuvinate it.
Okra produces well when it has lots of space. Square foot gardeners recommend one per square foot. Meanwhile traditional gardeners recommend giving as much as 3 feet of space to avoid competition.
In terms of soil, okra is not especially picky. But it does seem to do best with your typical vegetable garden soil: well-draining and rich with nutrients.
Okra dislikes competition from other okra as much as it does from weeds. That said, I've personally had success with them using the square foot method. I recommend growing at least 4 plants per household in order to reach a sufficient harvest.
It's important to remember to harvest your okra frequently. From flower to harvest usually takes about 4 days. Another name for okra is lady's finger, which describes the length it should be when you harvest it. If you wait too long, the pod will continue to grow very long and it will become too tough to eat. A good okra pod is about 3 inches long or shorter.
A classic Indian dish of okra and cumin.