Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a vegetable with historical roots firmly planted on the African continent.
Historians believe it was first cultivated along the Nile in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in the 12th century BCE, later spreading to Egypt and the Middle East. Continuing the tumultuous journey, okra made its way to the United States through the Atlantic slave trade, where it now exists as a Southern staple. While popular across West Africa and the Caribbean, it is not widely used in South Africa. However, it certainly deserves a place in your garden and in your fridge.
Most of the plant is edible and packed with nutrients like potassium and calcium. It’s also one of the Future 50 Foods (a collection of foods aimed at increasing nutritional diversity and combatting climate change) for its drought- and heat-resistance and antioxidant content. As an added bonus, there are so many cooking uses, from canning to thickening to egg or coffee replacements. This is not a plant you’ll regret adding to your spring planting list.
Okra, like most warm-season vegetables, cannot tolerate cold. Impatient gardeners can start seeds indoors in early spring under lights, and transplant the seedlings out once the soil warms. In warmer climates, seeds can be planted outside provided they are protected during cold snaps. Always plant in a full-sun position – okra loves the heat.
The plant is not fussy when it comes to soil conditions, but will grow best in well-draining, slightly acidic soil. Space the seeds or seedlings a minimum of 30cm, preferably leaving as much space as possible to give the plants ample growing room. When planting in rows, space the rows about 1m apart for easy harvesting.
Caring for Okra
Okra is not a fertiliser-heavy plant, but will benefit from application of a balanced fertiliser at or soon after planting. Regular weeding in the early stages of growth is essential, but can be reduced if a thick layer of mulch is applied to the beds around the plants. As a drought-tolerant plant, okra can handle a skipped watering or two. For best performance, though, water thoroughly around once a week and more often in hot summer months.
Watch out for aphids, earworms, stinkbugs and ants as they may damage your harvest. Once the plant begins producing flowers, apply fertiliser once more to last the rest of the growing season.
Harvesting and storage
In just 50 days, the plants will begin producing flowers. Enjoy these beauties while they last, as they will only stick around for a day or two before dropping off the plant to leave the initial stages of the okra pods behind. These pods should be harvested when they reach approximately 5cm in length, by cutting the stem just above the base. Don’t leave harvesting too late – the stems will become tough and the fruit will be stringy.
Unless you planted a spineless variety, always wear gloves when harvesting to prevent irritation. Okra plants produce a number of pods (more than most gardeners know what to do with), so it’s good to know that they can be stored in sealed bags in the freezer until ready for use. Even if you’ve gathered piles of okra pods, it’s always best to keep harvesting every few days to keep your plant producing. They can also be stored in the fridge for around five days before going bad.
Cooking with okra
Okra may be easy to grow, but it tends to be difficult to manage in the kitchen. This is partly because it’s not often worked with, and partly because it has a reputation for being slimy and unpleasant to eat. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be. With a bit of prior preparation and the correct cooking methods, you can enjoy okra with all the flavour and none of the slime.
When preparing, some cooks suggest limiting cutting as much as possible, as this releases the slime that gives the vegetable the unpleasant texture. Others swear by soaking the pods in vinegar for 30 minutes prior to cooking, to allow the acidity to cut through the slime. However, the simplest way to prevent slimy okra is to cook quickly at a very high heat.
To cook the pods, sauté them at a high heat for around 15 minutes, or roast for 30 minutes at 200°C. When chopping okra to add to stews, pre-cooking the pods in this way will also reduce sliminess. Always ensure the pods are completely dry before cooking, as excess water will contribute to the slimy texture.
Panda from Starke Ayres has a passion for growing and cooking food. Check out his tips for growing okra:
Soil: Rich, well-draining, moisture-retentive soil with plenty of compost dug in.
Position: Full sun and warm conditions.
Companions: Sunflowers, melons, cucumbers, peppers and brinjals.
Spacing: Single plants – 50cm each way (minimum). Rows – 45cm row gap (minimum).
Sow and plant: Soak seeds overnight in water before planting them 2cm deep and 15cm apart in warm soil after last frosts. Thin to proper spacing after two weeks.
Notes: Requires warm temperatures to give a good yield. Wear gloves if handling the plants when wet as they can give you an allergic reaction.
Harvesting: Pick pods young while they are still small.
Troubleshooting: Ants sometimes damage okra blossoms.
What can I mix with okra?
Okra is often paired with acidic flavours like lemon juice or tomatoes to balance out the earthy, woody flavours.
Stewed okra and tomatoes has all the comfort of a ratatouille, but with a little kick of hot sauce: Sauté 4 smashed garlic cloves in 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until golden. Add 4 cups okra (halved lengthwise) and 1 small onion (cut into wedges). Season with salt and pepper and cook until the okra is tender and bright (10 – 12 minutes). Add 1 punnet halved cherry tomatoes and cook until just bursting (3 minutes). Finish with a splash of cider vinegar.