Okra, or "Gumbo," from Africa
0kra (Hibiscus esculentus) is also called "gumbo" in this country, although the latter term is more often applied to soups or other dishes which contain okra. Both of these names are of African origin. "Gumbo" is believed to be a corruption of a Portuguese corruption, quingombo, of the word quillobo, native name for the plant in the Congo and Angola area of Africa.
Okra apparently originated in what the geobotanists call the Abyssinian center of origin of cultivated plants, an area that includes present-day Ethiopia, the mountainous or plateau portion of Eritrea, and the eastern, higher part of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Considering the little contact between that region and the rest of the world within historic times, it is not surprising that little is known about the early history and distribution of okra.
The routes by which okra was taken from Ethiopia to North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, Arabia, and India, and when, are by no means certain. Although it has been commonly cultivated in Egypt for many hundreds of years, no sign of it has ever been found in any of the ancient monuments or relics of old Egypt.
Since the Spanish Moors and the Egyptians of the 12th and 13th centuries used an Arab word for okra, it probably was taken into Egypt by the Moslems from the East who conquered Egypt in the 7th century. It requires no stretch of the imagination to suppose that the plant earlier was taken from Ethiopia to Arabia across the narrow Red Sea or the narrower strait at its southern end.
From Arabia okra was spread over North Africa, completely around the Mediterranean, and eastward. The absence of any ancient Indian names for it suggests that it reached India after the beginning of the Christian Era.
Wild Okra on the Upper Nile
Although the plant has been well known in India for a long time, it is not found wild there. Modern travelers have found okra growing truly wild, however, along the White Nile and elsewhere in the upper Nile country as well as in Ethiopia.
One of the earliest accounts of okra is by a Spanish Moor who visited Egypt in 1216. He described the plant in detail, as cultivated by the Egyptians, and stated that the pods when young and tender were eaten with meal. (Southerners in our own country know how to cook it with corn meal-slice the pods, dip the pieces in meal, and fry them.)
Because of the outstanding popularity of okra in the French cookery of Louisiana, and its slow gain in popularity elsewhere in this country, it is safe to assume that it was introduced to this country by the French colonists of Louisiana in the early 1700's. It had been introduced to the New World, however, before 1658, reaching Brazil supposedly from Africa. It was known in Surinam in 1686.
Strangely, records of okra during early American colonial times are lacking, although it must have been common among French colonists. It was being grown as far north as Philadelphia in 1748; Jefferson said it was known in Virginia before 1781, and from about 1800 onward numerous garden writers had something to say about it. Several distinct varieties were known in 1806.
As is true with a number of our less generally popular vegetables, many people fail to appreciate this one because they do not know how to use it. The first and commonest mistake that gardeners make is to let the pods become too old and tough before harvesting them. They grow very fast, and in hot weather will become unfit for use in less than a week from the time they start developing from the pollinated flower. The plants must be gone over at least every second day and the pods harvested when only three to five days old.
Important Crop in South
Okra is rarely used "straight" except when fried with meal, just a little of it usually being cooked with other vegetables or put into soups and stews. Okra alone is generally considered too "gooey," or mucilaginous, to suit American tastes. In recent years, however, it has become an important commercial crop in certain localities in the South, where thousands of tons of the pods are grown for the large soup companies.
Okra is easily dried for later use. A little dried okra in prepared dishes produces much the same results as does the fresh product.
In some lands the seeds rather than the whole young pods are of most interest. When ripe the seeds yield an edible oil that is the equal of many other cooking oils. In Mediterranean countries and the East, where edible oils are scarcer than in our country, okra oil is no rarity.
The ripe seeds of okra are sometimes roasted and ground as a substitute for coffee. A close relative of okra, roselle, is used as a source of fiber for cloth. In Turkey, the leaves are used in preparing a medicament to soothe or reduce inflammation.