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USDA Farmers Market, Washington, DC. Okra is an African market vegetable now found in cuisines as disparate as French and Japanese. It is common throughout South Asia and, of course, it is popular in Caribbean and African cooking. The word gumbo derives from a Bantu word—ki ngombo—for this vegetable. The size of a thick, long green bean, this vegetable is high in fiber and provides solid provitamin A and vitamin C, as well as minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Okra can be boiled, blanched, fried, sauteed, and steamed and is even tasty when raw, young, and fresh. So why don’t we see more of it in supermarkets and on restaurant menus? (M.R. Dafforn)

For a food resource, the okra plant is strange; it is a coarse, upright herb bearing fuzzy green pods somewhat reminiscent of beans. Their mucilage may turn off newcomers, but many Africans, and a growing number of others, consider the slithery texture no deterrent—indeed, they see it as perhaps okra’s most desirable feature. A popular soup vegetable, very much appreciated in West Africa for its thickening power, okra pod is used both fresh and dried.2 Dry pods are also pounded into flour that is commonly added to foods. In the Sahel, this flour is also used in the final stages of preparing couscous, as it prevents the granules sticking to each other.

In America, where it appears almost exclusively in stews and soups, okra is usually seen in cross section, cut into disks that look like little cartwheels with a seed nestled between each pair of spokes. Okra is also the key ingredient in gumbo, the famous dish of the American South.

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One study, for example, found that fresh or dried okra was the vegetable most frequently used in the Baoulé of central Côte d’Ivoire.



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