Chris Smith is a self-describer okra fanatic.
Photo by Belle Crawford
In 2018, I grew 76 cultivars of okra. I conducted three separate trials as part of the manic culmination of a six-year obsession with this marvelous mallow, Abelmoschus esculentus. Esculentus is Latin for “delicious” and “full-of-food,” although I fear modern-day botanists would rename okra “Esculentus slimeus,” for its reputation. The mucilage released from all parts of an okra plant has suffered a public opinion reversal over the last 150 years. In the 1800s the slime was celebrated: Okra soup was all the rage, gumbo developed and diversified into many variations, and okra was generally beloved. But the 1900s saw okra’s slippery slide into a marginal vegetable, deep-fried in the South and listed on many a list of most hated foods. In 1949, Victor R. Boswell, the principal horticulturist of the United States Department of Agriculture, declared that, “Okra alone is generally considered too ‘gooey,’ or mucilaginous, to suit American tastes.” While this statement does seem to reflect many people’s personal opinions, it does no justice to okra’s incredible potential. A 1907 article called okra “the plant that seems to hold the wealth of Midas within its branches.” Today that level of accolade is unheard of, but I hope the time is ripe for okra’s return to prominence.
The Okra Trials
I planted 61 of my okra cultivars at Franny’s Farm, which is nestled in a beautiful holler in the mountains of western North Carolina. This batch included a random collection of seeds gathered from seed swaps, plus a wide range of cultivars donated by Sow True Seed, Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I planted 10 cultivars down the road, at the DiLoreti Family Farm. I called that batch the “Random Red” cultivar trial, because I had a collection of seeds that were simply labeled “red okra” or “red pod,” with very little information about the plants. I also planted a handful of seeds I’d received from the USDA Genetic Resource Information Network (GRIN) database. These were high-oil seeds, which have formed part of a personal project to breed an oilseed okra cultivar. Okra seed oil is a delicious, nutty, olive-esque oil, and Clay Oliver Farms, in Georgia, is currently the only source in the United States. Okra seeds’ tough seed coats and low oil content make them hard to press, but Southern chefs Sean Brock and Ian Boden, among others, have raved about okra seed oil, making the breeding project an exciting endeavor.
Variety trials steam under the summer sun.
Photo by Chris Smith
When I told people about my trials, I received a series of standard responses.
Shock: “There are THAT many okra cultivars?”
Yes, it’s true; okra is more than ‘Clemson Spineless’ and ‘Red Burgundy.’ In the U.S. alone, there are hundreds of named cultivars. I actually have around 175 cultivars in my collection, but even that’s barely scratching the surface. The USDA houses over 1,000 accessions from all over the world, and worldwide gene banks hold thousands more, with strong centers of diversity in India and Nigeria.
Disbelief: “But they all look the same, right?”
I can empathize with this question, because in the beginning, I, too, wondered if all these “cultivars” were actually subtle iterations of the same basic okra types. But to walk into my okra field was to be astounded by diversity; the pods were long to short, fat to thin, deepest red through palest green, spiny and curly, as well as stout and stubby. It was truly incredible. And there are taste differences! I held a field day and conducted a World-Cup style elimination taste test with my family; we reduced the field to four finalists. There was absolute consensus on the winning cultivar: ‘Yalova Akköy,’ a Turkish landrace noted for its sweet, nutty flavor.
Suspicion: “Why are you doing this?”
As if only a madman would contemplate such an undertaking. My British accent mitigated this response; I was protected by my questioners’ assumption that I probably didn’t know any better. But I was writing The Whole Okra, and piloting The Utopian Seed Project, which aims to research and celebrate crop diversity. As heirloom gardeners, most of us are aware of the devastating loss of produce diversity over the last century. Our supermarket shelves have been reduced to a handful of cultivars — if we’re lucky — and breeding work has focused on mechanized harvest, shipping security, and shelf life. It’s extremely exciting to explore the vast range of traits that okra has to offer.
A Seed-to-Stem Philosophy
In 2018, my family and I felt very connected to a common saying from the 1930s: “I ate so much okra I slid out of bed.” That said, we never actually grew bored of eating okra at least twice a day for the entire summer. My wife even commented at one point that she was sad if we prepared a meal without okra. This is partly because we ate okra in so many different ways. The pods alone offer endless culinary options. Most common are pickled okra, fried okra, or gumbo, or perhaps grilled or raw pods for the adventurous. If you’re not as enamored of okra’s famous slime, try our Baked Okra Recipe. Chef Steven Goff makes an incredible, tangy, sour-spicy okra kimchi, and Sandor Katz loves fermenting the pods. There are many international cuisines to draw from: India is the leading producer of okra (bhindi) by a long shot, but okra is eaten all across Asia, the Middle East, Mediterranean Europe, much of Africa, and parts of South America and the Caribbean.
Okra belongs to the mallow family, and has distinctive, hibiscus-like flowers.
Photo by Chris Smith
Beyond the pod, the leaves, flowers, and seeds are edible. In Nigeria and the southeastern Pacific, you can find okra leaves in soups and stews. I love the succulent nuttiness of okra microgreens, and chef Ian Boden deep-fries the leaves naked for a crunchy garnish. The flowers have their own flavor profile and are often used in fancy salads, but I’ve found them best utilized as herbal teas (where they offer a green tea-like, savory flavor), or to infuse vodka and vinegar. The petals have red centers, and will turn a clear alcohol bright red. The seeds are protein-rich and nutritious. I’ve used them to create okra seed tempeh, tofu, oil, and flour (from hulled and ground seeds). Roasted okra seed flour is rich and nutty; a baker friend, Maia Surdam, makes a delightful okra seed sourdough. Chef Clark Barlowe uses the immature seeds of overgrown pods to made a gluten-free couscous.
Leave some okra pods on the plant to mature if you want to save seeds.
Photo by Chris Smith
My point here is that diversity exists on two fronts. The first is through our willingness to grow lots of different cultivars, but the second is in our willingness to experiment with the food we grow. I apply this seed-to-stem philosophy to most things I grow. If something isn’t poisonous, then I’ll try to find a way to make it edible! Okra is my best example because the entire plant is edible and most of it is entirely delicious. Even the roots offer an arrowroot-like starch.
My Favorite Fifteen
The 15 cultivars in this downloadable Okra Trial chart are a relatively subjective selection of my personal favorites. You can find information on, and pictures of, all the cultivars I trialed in my book, The Whole Okra, or by exploring The Utopian Seed Project. I’ve listed the main characteristic for each category first, with any secondary characteristics following, and highly variable cultivars’ traits all listed. For example, ‘Puerto Rico Evergreen’ pods are shown as green and red-blushed, meaning they’re mainly green, with some red-blushed pods. The pod spininess is listed as “smooth/velvety/spiny,” meaning the cultivar displayed some smooth pods, some velvety pods, and some spiny pods, with no clear dominance. Pod shape covers both overall size and the type of ridges on the pods.
Okra pods offer an array of colors, textures, and flavors.
Photo by Chris Smith
Heirloom Okra Sources
Chris Smith is an okra enthusiast and expert, communications manager for Sow True Seed, and board member of both Slow Food Asheville and The People’s Seed, an organization working to develop plants in a system that prioritizes farmers’ success, food security, and the environment. Follow Chris on Instagram @BlueAndYellowMakes.