Pods [Hibiscus esculentus]

Originally from North Africa, the seeds of this mallow were carried to the U.S. with the slave trade. Okra is now grown world wide and is particularly important in the U.S. South, Africa, the Middle East and India.

In African, Middle Eastern and Southern US cooking okra is valued for it's mucilaginousness (sliminess) which adds body to broths and sauces, but in much of the world, India, for example, cooking methods are designed specifically to suppress this characteristic.

Okra Leaves are used in African cooking, but what is sold as "Okra Leaves" in Southern California is a different mallow, Molokhia. For those who fondly remember eating the seed wheels of Common Mallow as children, the taste can be recaptured in more convenient form by eating Okra pods raw.

More on Mallows.

Buying:   Select okra for crisp, bright green medium size pods, as close to the same size as possible. If they will be cooked whole, the smaller and younger the better.

Storing:   Okra can be kept in the refrigerator, wrapped loosely, for up to a week, but first leave it out on the counter long enough so there is no free water on it

Cooking - Whole Pods:   For non-slimy whole okra pods cooked in a recipe, shave the cap and stem off in a conical shape with a very sharp knife. Make sure you do not cut so deep as to make an opening into the interior. Soak the pods in vinegar in a non-reactive bowl for about 30 minutes, tumbling often to make sure they stay wet with vinegar. This treatment will prevent them from splitting open during cooking. Rinse, drain and pat dry before using.

Pods Dried Okra

This form is popular in Turkey and Armenia for special soups and stews. Tiny okra pods were traditionally gathered in the summer, threaded on a string and hung up to dry for use in the winter. The photo specimens, up to 1-1/8 inches long, were purchased from a multi-ethnic market in Los Angeles, but they weren't cheap at 2012 US $12.78 / pound - but they were very light, so you get a lot of them in a half pound package. I have seen photos of strings of dried okra pods quite a bit smaller than these.

Pods Pickled Okra

This form is popular in Turkey and Armenia as part of appetizer plates. From the evidence of multiple brands in the markets where I shop it appears the Turks prefer very short okras, naturally pickled, containing only okra and salt. Thse are very tendery, with very good okra flavor and very low acidity, packed in moderately mucilaginous liquid (which you can rinse off if you wish). The photo specimens (to the left in photo) were from 1 inch to 2-1/4 inches long.

In contrast, the Armenians appear to prefer longer, more mature okra, and may include some acetic acid in the mix, and some herbs. This product was a bit more tart, had a little crunchiness, and had noticeable but not at all objectional fiber in the pods. The pods (right and bottom in the photo) ranged up to 4-1/4 inches and 0.57 inch wide.

These specimens were both purchased from a multi-ethnic market in Los Angeles. 2013 US $2.69 / 1-1/2 pound jar (Turkish). I have a slight preferance for the Armenian, but both were enjoyable.

Pickled Okra is also very popular in the American Southeast, often made at home but also available in jars. These are larger okra than used in Anatolia and Caucasus and they are pickled in vinegar, with spices, rather than naturally with salt. The objective here is for them to be crunchier rather than soft, and with a spicy flavor. Chilis are often included in the mix.

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