July 8-10, 2024 – Okra – No Joke(ra)!

The day that okra appears in your boxes is a clear sign that summer has arrived in full force. Because okra is a summer tale of a plant born in Africa which migrated north to the Arabian lands and the Middle East before eventually reaching the American Deep South aboard slave ships. In every locale, it flourished in the scorching heat.

The Okra Story is also a tale of family warmth – of memories from our mothers’ and grandmothers’ (and lately our fathers’ and grandfathers’) kitchen, of delicious dishes whose magic is much greater than the actual ingredients. Here too, warmth is a key component. 

In my case, okra is a family tale. My father, a full-fledged Yekke (Jew of German origin) is an avid okra devotee who passed his legacy on to his children. I, in turn, introduced the love of okra to my daughters. Today, the lucky one who discovers the first okra delivery of the season immediately proclaims: “Okra’s here! Summer’s here!” When they were younger, they loved discovering the little “stars” that appear when slicing okra pods horizontally. As they grew, they began to concentrate on the flavor as well. Today, even an extra-large skillet of sauteed okra with lemon and garlic lasts only moments in our home.

Okra likes to prance around using her fancy name “Lady Fingers,” and indeed, she should be handled with care. Before cooking, the okra’s tip must be gently snipped off, taking care not to hurt the pod. In olden days, when a groom’s family wanted to “check out” a bride, they handed her a knife, a pile of okra, and put her to work. If she sliced it properly, this indicated she was gentle and skilled.

But to the harvesters, okra does not put on her Dainty Lady show. Okra bushes contain etheric oil, and any brush against them causes a terrible itch, which is why okra is picked wearing long sleeves and gloves. This crop is harvested in large quantities, often, and over time. We pick okra every other day to avoid facing a lady who missed her date with the manicurist and let her nails grow out of control… Harvesting is a time-consuming job, as the pods must be searched for among the tangled brush of foliage and then picked one by one. Very personal treatment.

But although she is royalty, okra is also one of the only crops which does not force us to kneel before it. The bushes quickly grow taller, reaching an impressive height of 3 meters! At a certain point, it is already high above us and we must bend its flexible branches down to reach its pods. Another joy of harvesting okra is the beauty of its flowers. Okra belongs to the Malvaceae family (along with chubeza, cotton, hibiscus and hollyhock). Not many members of the family are edible, but they are all ravishing beauties. Our okra boasts large, lush yellowish flowers, with a bright purple center.

Okra began its domesticated journey in the world over 1,000 years ago in tropical Africa, in the Ethiopia-Eritrea-Sudan region where it can still be found growing wild. From there it crossed the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia and took off to North Africa, the Middle East and India. It is unclear how this journey occurred, with very mysterious periods within okra history, but it did become a favorite food in all those countries. Okra probably arrived in Europe, compliments of the Muslim Moors of Spain, in the 12th century. It made its debut in the new American continent via two sources: African slaves hauled to work in the colonies carried okra to Brazil and South America, while simultaneously French settlers, who now knew it from Europe, brought okra to Louisiana (home of gumbo). Over recent decades, okra became a vaunted vegetable in the Asian kitchen, specifically the Japanese. Thus, one does not have to be Egyptian or Greek to hold this vegetable in esteem.

The local okra variety indigenous to Israel has small pods. Traditional wisdom is to steer clear of a pod larger than your pinky, as this is a sign of an okra which is over-mature and too fibrous. To the contrary, the green and red okra varieties that Chubeza grows are Thai okra: longer, larger and slightly less slimy. Don’t be put off by the size ­– it’s simply a different type of cousin, but no less amazing than other family members.

But despite its beauty, some are repulsed by the modest okra. The reason generally cited is its “texture,” or in other words: “that slimy stuff that oozes out when it’s cooked.” This is a pity, because that “slimy stuff” holds the okra in its Cinderella state, still in rags and forgotten, waiting to be discovered for all its charms. There are many ways to reduce the slime, which I will soon reveal, but let us first discover the charms of Cinderella Okra.

This is a vegetable rich in vitamins K, A and C, plus folic acid, calcium, magnesium and potassium. The dietary fibers aid in preventing constipation and in stabilizing blood sugar levels by slowing the process of sugar absorption in the digestive system. These fibers also absorb and remove cholesterol and stomach acids containing the toxins that did not pass through the liver’s filtering system. Its dietary fibers are unique in that they nuture the flora of good intestinal bacteria. As it matures, okra’s fibers grow more and more rigid (which anyone who’s ever tried to chew a mature pod can attest to), yet its potential is not yet exhausted. These tough pods can be used as raw material for the rope and paper industry.

Okra’s assets are not only in the pod fibers, but also in the tiny seeds inside: the oil which can be extracted from them is quite healthy and unsaturated, with characteristics resembling the celebrated olive oil. These small seeds also contain hearty vegetable protein, like soybeans, and they are rich in tryptophan and contain amino acids – a very important combination for the vegetarian diet. Ground okra seeds were used in the past (and in some places, in the present) as a caffeine-free coffee substitute (similar to the chicory root and date seeds).

And the “slime”? Use it to thicken stews and soups (sometimes okra pods are dried and ground for use as a gelatin-like thickening agent), and even use it to heal wounds and soothe burns, similar o aloe vera gel.

But if you still wish to reduce the slime level in cooking, here are several options:

– Leave the pod intact (cut off the stem, but do not open the pod).

– Prepare quickly and easily by stir-frying or frying, not by lengthy cooking in liquids.

– Combine with acidic foods: tomatoes, lemon juice or vinegar.

May the coming week bring only good news for all. May this summer be one of home and family warmth, with the speedy return of the hostages to their homes!

Alon, Bat-Ami, Dror, Einat, and the entire Chubeza team



Monday: New Zealand spinach/basil/kale, butternut squash/slice of pumpkin, corn/acorn squash, onions/leek/chive, lubia Thai yard-long beans/okra, coriander/parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers/fakus, melon/Amoro Kabocha squash, potatoes.

Large box, in addition: Lettuce/Malabar spinach, eggplant, cherry tomatoes. 

FRUIT BOXES: Lychee, mango, grapes. Large box: Pink Lady apples.

Wednesday: Lettuce/basil, corn/cherry tomatoes, onions/leek, lubia Thai yard-long beans/okra, coriander/parsley/chive, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, Amoro Kabocha squash/acorn squash, eggplant, potatoes.

Large box, in addition: New Zealand spinach/Malabar spinach, butternut squash/slice of pumpkin, melon/carrots.    

FRUIT BOXES: Lychee, mango, grapes/plums. Large box: Pears/Pink Lady apples.