Most people think of gumbo is a soup or stew from Louisiana, typically made with chicken or shellfish, Andouille sausage, bell peppers, celery and onions, and thickened with okra pods.
But in the beginning, “gumbo” was simply the word for okra in the African Bantu language.
Okra came to America with the slave trade and was introduced to the Southern white population by their African cooks. Okra became the vegetable associated with the American South*.
Okra is a flowering plant in the mallow family, Malvaceae, which also includes cacao, cotton, hibiscus, the kola nut (the base flavor of cola drinks) and the “king of Asian fruits,” the durian, known for its strong aroma and large, thorny husk.
The valuable part of the okra plant is its edible green seed pods. The geographical origin of okra is disputed, with champions of Ethiopian, West Africa, even South Asia. Today, the vegetable is cultivated in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate regions around the world. [Source]
Okra is used in casseroles, soups, stews and sides; added, cooked, to salads and sandwiches (try an okra grilled cheese). They can be fried or stuffed (like poppers).
Okra pods were originally green, but mutations have led to the development of red and burgundy varieties. Look for them in your farmers market. Photo courtesy Starling Yards.