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Okra is less of a flavour and more of a concept. It is a vegetable with its own slight savor—sometimes grassy or like mild asparagus. We may think of it as just another ingredient for Cajun cooking, but okra is found in cuisines as disparate as French and Japanese. And of course, it is popular in Caribbean and African cooking. The word gumbo derives from an East African word—ki ngombo—for this vegetable.

The size of a thick, long green bean, this vegetable is a powerhouse of nutrition. It is high in fiber, loaded with vitamins A and C, and minerals such as calcium, folacin, 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?

Well the world is divided into two camps when it comes to okra because when it is cooked, particularly when it is cooked too long, it becomes very sticky and has a strong mucilaginous texture that many people just can’t stand.

I like okra but I have to admit that this is a vegetable that works best with plenty of others. While some people are repulsed by okra’s sliminess its thick juice is a great binder of flavours and is particularly good in a complex stew or soup.

A simple way of cooking okra was suggested to me by Mrs. Walker at Arawak, a West Indian grocery store at 5854 Sherbrooke St. W.:

Wash and trim the ends from a dozen okra. Put these in a glass bowl with a chopped tomato, a finely chopped onion and a few minced cloves of garlic. Add a little salt and pepper, a half cup of water, a tablespoon of olive oil and a splash of vinegar. Cover and cook in a microwave oven on high for 15 minutes.

This seems to cook the okra just long enough so that it melds with the other vegetables but doesn’t become too sticky. The vinegar may also cut the gumminess.

Mrs. Walker’s recipe is also a base for a more complete dish by adding other vegetables, and small pieces of cooked meat. Done this way it would be a good accompaniment to couscous. Add cooked rice and extra chicken stock, sausage, shrimp and chicken and we are well on our way to okra’s hallmark dish—Louisiana gumbo.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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