Southern Origins: Okra

Southern Origins: Okra
Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
Illustrations by
Jing Li
 So many of the foods we Southerners put on a pedestal get their lofty spots because strong knots forever tie them to happy memories. My fondness for fried okra is based partly on the dish’s texture and taste. I can eat my weight in thin, star-shaped slices of the veggie dusted in a whisper of gritty cornmeal, bathed in hot oil till crisp, and salted liberally while warm.

But the mental picture (and its attached sentiment) conjured with each bite is also a large part of its appeal. I can clearly see my grandmother wiping sweat from her forehead as she tended batches of okra dancing in her skillet. Frying okra is a summer activity, which meant the seasonal south-Mississippi swelter joining the warmth coming off her stove pushed kitchen temps to truly uncomfortable levels. Despite the heat, she never once declined a request for more fried okra.

Yet okra is not elevated by our personal recollections alone. Like many foods, each green pod of okra contains the stories of generations of different people tucked alongside its sticky seeds, and many of these chapters are not pleasant, but painful. As a self-described “okra apostle,” chef and author Virginia Willis (who wrote an okra-focused cookbook called “Okra”) explains, okra came to the American South with enslaved Africans. 

This troubled past remains a key component of okra in the present, but it doesn’t have to drag the vegetable down, unless we try to overlook it. A better choice is choosing to recognize and remember this fact: so many aspects of life—not just food—came at a great cost.

Willis shares her insight on this history, pointing to a new nugget of information about okra’s background. 

Where is okra originally from? 

The general consensus for a while has been that it originated in East Africa and spread to West Africa, where it has been a part of that area’s food culture for a long time. But a recently released book called The Whole Okra: A Stem to Seed Celebration by Chris Smith contains research that points to it originating in Southeast Asia. So it could be that okra was born in Asia and grew up (domesticated) in East Africa. Anyone who wants to dive into this topic should check out his book.

How did it come to the American South? 

It came to the region with enslaved West Africans. It traveled everywhere with the slave trade, and wherever it was very hot, okra was easily established and grew well. 

When and why did okra become such an iconic Southern food? 

It is right to say it’s iconic here. But as Southerners we have an inside perspective on it, so of course we see it that way. Its place of prominence is in no way limited to the American South. It is prevalent in other cuisines too, such as West-African and Indian. But it is a cornerstone here and became that for two reasons. First, it was imported along with enslaved Africans, and the dishes prepared with okra by enslaved cooks spread beyond those populations. Second, it thrived here, thanks to the semi-tropical environment at the ports of entry. The conditions were right. 

Do you have a favorite okra memory? 

My first memories of okra are picking it in the garden with my grandparents and how itchy it was and despising it for that. I also remember it being so hot outside when we picked it. But once we got it in the kitchen, I forgot all that. I’ve loved eating it since I was a child. Fast forward to my adult life, and I tasted okra raw for the first time at a farmers market in Atlanta. A friend was selling this beautiful okra, and she picked up a pod and ate it. And then I took a bite. I had been cooking as a professional for 20 years at that point and had never done that. It was the proverbial “light bulb” moment. It was crunchy and intensely vegetal and fresh—completely different than anything I’d ever tasted before. That changed the way I cook it. I don’t cook it as thoroughly now. And I’ve started using it raw; I’ll slice it up and serve it in salads. 

Do you have tips for those turned off by its sliminess? 

The “gateway okra” for someone hesitant about the vegetable is freshly pickled, preferably in a martini. What isn’t great about that? Another option is to try it broiled or grilled on super-high heat. That cooks it quickly and substantially reduces the risk of overcooking it, which makes it slimy.

Tell us about your Okra cookbook and your newest cookbook, Secrets of the Southern Table.

Okra came out in 2014 and is part of the Savor the South series. Secrets of the Southern Table came out in May 2018, and in this book, I really wanted to show the breadth and diversity of Southern cuisine and of people in the South. So there are some traditional recipes, but my okra recipe from this book has a delicious twist. It’s fried okra, but I toss the okra in Indian spices such as turmeric and coriander and then serve it with yogurt dipping sauce. I julienne the okra and smash it, so there are lots of crispy bits, and the heat and spice of it make it different but still familiar. 

Smashed Fried Okra with Spicy Yogurt Dipping Sauce
Excerpted from Secrets of the Southern Table by Virginia Willis 
Serves 4 to 6

For the dipping sauce:

2 Tbsp chickpea flour or chickpea and fava bean flour
1½ tsp cumin seeds, crushed
1 c plain 2% Greek or 0% Icelandic yogurt
1 tsp chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp chopped fresh mint
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the okra:

1 pound okra (about 40 pieces), stem ends trimmed
½ c canola oil
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground turmeric
¼ tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the dipping sauce, heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add the chickpea flour and cumin seeds. Toast, stirring continuously, until aromatic and slightly darkened, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add the yogurt, cilantro, and mint; stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

To make the okra, use a meat mallet or the bottom of a cast-iron skillet to smash the okra, starting at the tip of the pod and working toward the stem end. (You can also thinly slice it lengthwise. I like using a mixture of both, smashing and slicing.)

Line a bowl with paper towels and have it nearby. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. When it is hot but not smoking, add the okra. Fry until crisp and browned on both sides, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain in the prepared bowl. While the okra is hot, sprinkle it with the garam masala, coriander, turmeric, and cayenne. Season with salt and black pepper. Toss to mix and combine. Serve immediately with the yogurt dipping sauce.