Botanical name: Hibiscus esculentus
Origins and history
Also known by the name of Gombo, Okra is a plant of African origin, which soon spread also in Asia and throughout the equatorial belt, up to Italy, where the strong demand from the communities of immigrants has favored the birth of crops in Sicily, an island that holds the record in terms of Okra production, but with the presence of other local realities, such as the Province of Latina. This plant, belonging to the Malvaccee family, the same as cocoa and hibiscus, is widely used in traditional Indian cuisine, but also finds space in the recipes of some Balkan and South American regions: the fruit it produces, a pod similar to green chilli in color and shape, it is harvested when it is still unripe and has a taste that vaguely recalls that of asparagus.
It does not require particular attention, if not a well-drained soil and a mild climate, thus also lending itself to cultivation in the garden or in pots, but it is advisable to know that this plant can reach important heights: not surprisingly from its very compact stem, a very popular textile fiber is obtained.
Nutritional and beneficial properties of Okra
Despite being ignored for a long time by Western cuisine, as often consumed by African slaves and therefore referred to as "food of the poor", Okra actually has a very pleasant taste and a respectable nutritional content: compared to a very low calorie content, which allows it to be a food present in many diets, the pod is rich in vitamins, mainly A and C, and folic acid, a valid ally for pregnant women.
Like all foods of plant origin, it is also rich in fiber, the importance of which at the metabolic level is undisputed, but strangely it also has good levels of calcium, essential for bone health.
The presence of these nutritional elements attributes numerous beneficial properties to the Okra, such as the ability to soothe inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, to help the immune system in the production of probiotics and, according to some studies, to facilitate the absorption of sugar and thus reduce the level of glucose in the blood.
Use of Okra in the kitchen
In Indian cuisine, the pod is used in the preparation of Bhindi Masala, a quick but very tasty dish: after being cut into circular pieces, it is combined with a sauté of onion, cumin seeds and garlic, and seasoned with salt and chopped coriander: once it has cooled, it is eaten with bread or croutons.
In Brazil, where it takes the name of Quiabo, it is served as a side dish, generally combined with rice and beans, but it is not infrequently consumed as a single dish: this is the case of Quiabo Refogado, or in wet.
The preparation in this case too is very intuitive: the pod is rubbed with lemon juice, an operation which serves to eliminate the natural thickener contained in it in the form of burr, which not everyone likes. It is then rinsed in cold water and, slowly cooked in a pan, combined with olive oil, garlic and pepper, until it reaches a soft consistency, without losing its shape. Okra lends itself to being also used in soups, since the liquid it contains, highly thickening, makes dishes based on liquids more velvety and creamy: not surprisingly in the Balkan countries the pod is the basis of every vegetable broth.
However, this plant does not find space only in the kitchen: in Africa for example, children play with the sticky liquid contained in the pod, using it as a glue substance for constructions made of wooden sticks or to decorate the face with forms obtained from the plant itself. On the other hand, from the pod, cut and boiled in plenty of water, a viscous liquid is obtained which, combined with lemon juice, is excellent for preparing a hair mask which has the ability to degrease and reinvigorate the scalp, especially appreciated by the fair sex: by the way, the fruit of this plant is also called "lady's fingers", due to the tapered shape and smooth skin, which reminds of the hand, or better the fingers, of a young noblewoman.