The slimy charms of okra

Okra, okro or ladyfingers are an overlooked gem. And while the vegetable has a reputation, only somewhat unfairly, for slimy tendencies, handled the right way it can be a fantastic addition to your produce repertoire.

Native to Ethiopia, okra is a member of its family (the mallow family which includes cotton, hibiscus and hollyhock) to bear edible fruit. There are two colours of okra available – red or green. The red is a newer variety with the green being the most common in Australia. Aside from colour, the varieties are very similar and when red okra is cooked the pods turn green anyway!

Okra has spread around the world and is favoured in many cuisines including Caribbean, Creole, Cajun and my favourite, Indian.

The flavour profile is fairly mild and similar to eggplant. And because it is subtle, okra goes well with strong, spicy ingredients, which in turn serve to enhance it. Nutritionally it does a very good job – low in calories, it is a good source of vitamin C, folate, magnesium, potassium and fibre.

But let's deal with that reputation for being slimy. Okra has a viscous, clear liquid that is known as mucilage, which is similar to what you find in the aloe vera plant. Great for sunburn, maybe not so great on the plate.

The viscosity or thickness increases when heat is applied for cooking. How you prep the okra will help determine how viscous it becomes. Don’t wash the okra until you are absolutely ready to cook it. Moreover, the liquid that makes okra feel slimy also escapes when you cut the flesh so best strategy is to limit how many times you cut the vegetable, or better still avoid slicing altogether and use it whole. Simply remove the stems and cook the vegetable whole. It is also best to cook okra at a high temperature as this will further help eliminate slime.

With a light, green-ridged outer skin the pod should be blemish free when choosing your pods. Look for firm, brightly coloured specimens, remembering bigger in this case is not better. Generally the bigger pods are tougher and not the best eating. Smaller is preferable, approximately one to ten centimetres long with a diameter of around one to three centimetres wide.

Okra is also covered in a slight fuzz. This is edible and not particularly noticeable once cooked. Inside they have rows of seeds.

So how to cook it? There are lots of options there – stir fry, chargrilled on a griddle with a light coating of oil and any seasoning you prefer, sautéed or fried for a crispy finish, steamed whole or added to stews and casseroles. It acts as a natural thickener.

Try to be openminded when you consider okra; its an all rounder offering great value, its nutrititious and versatile you will wonder why you haven’t tried it before.

Jenny Hobson McGrigor is from Murdoch Produce. For further information, please visit murdochproduce.com.au.