Slime is not a word often used in favorable descriptions of food. But when it comes to okra, the magic is in the mucilage (let’s just stop calling it slime, shall we?). Without the stew-binding element that makes okra such a divisive issue, we wouldn’t have okra gumbo, pilau, stew, or that bastion of summer: okra succotash, made with fresh tomatoes, corn, and butter beans.
Okra, a relative of both the hibiscus and cotton plants, was already a staple in India, the upper Nile valley, and Africa when it first came to North America in the early 18th century. Gumbo and okra are literally synonymous in the French-African dialect, and in Indian cuisine, they call the long, thin, green buds “lady’s fingers.”
Perhaps a smidge of American disdain for okra can be attributed to unfamiliarity, as the vegetable has only recently become available everywhere year-round. Charlestonians, on the other hand, are spoiled rotten when it comes to our okra offerings. As a port city, Charleston became one of the first places in the country to assimilate okra into both casual and haute cuisine, resulting in its prominent placement on menus across the Lowcountry. The local okra crop generally comes in between March and May each year, but you can always find a few okra dishes around town that could win over even the most adamant okra-hater, no matter the season or the reason.
Served as an accompaniment to almost all dishes, and if you ask nicely, they’ll give you a few extras for free
Downtown. 207 Rutledge Ave. 937-0930
Hominy Grill, owned and operated by Chef Robert Stehling, is well-known for its fresh approach to Southern classics like shrimp and grits, buttermilk pie, and the best local fish. But one of the details that really sets the restaurant apart are the salty, tangy okra pickles served with just about every dish on the menu. “You go to a deli and they give you a dill spear, so we felt that a Southern-style restaurant could give out okra pickles,” Stehling says. The pickled okra, which look like hairy gherkins, have a fantastic snap and a slightly spicy flavor that doesn’t so much explode in your mouth as add a little unexpected zip. But that’s not the only way Stehling downs his green pods. “This was kind of an epiphany I had recently, but taking the whole pods of okra and boiling them in salted water with butter … it doesn’t sound very appealing, but the day I did it, it changed my whole experience with the vegetable.”
Seared Scallops with Stone-Ground Grits and a Ragout of Field Peasand Ham Hock Sauce
Downtown. 12 Anson St. 577-0551
“Okra does say Lowcountry and you want to have it represented on your menu, but it is versatile, as far as it can be fried, sautéed, grilled,” says Anson executive chef Kevin Johnson, “and it provides a nice flavor contrast.” Although okra is not mentioned in this delectable dish’s description, it is an integral part nonetheless. The vibrantly green okra floating among the fresh peas both intensifies and is intensified by the smoky, buttery scallop and the heartiness of the ham, while also adding a wonderfully subtle stickiness and heft to the ragout. Put it all together with the grits on a fork and you’ve got a mouth-sized sampler of some of the best tastes in the Lowcountry. “One of the misconceptions of okra is how it’s gooey and pasty and mucus-y, for lack of a better term,” Johnson says. “If you cut it a little smaller and cook it a little less, you can get a nice, firm texture to it.”
$7.95 (lunch serving w/rice), $5.75/cup, $6.95/bowl
Mt. Pleasant. 1717 Hwy 17 N. 881-9076
Gullah Cuisine owner and chef Charlotte Jenkins, an Awendaw native, knows her okra. “When I grew up, I loved to go in the field and pick the fresh okra — and baby okra — and just steam it with butter and pepper,” Jenkins says. “Oh my God, that is delicious!” The okra gumbo whipped up daily at Gullah Cuisine has a few more accoutrements, but is just as easy to love. In the gumbo, the okra rubs flavors with shrimp, chicken, and pork sausage while melding everything together with just enough stick, thanks to okra’s unique starch matrix. And that’s not the extent of the catering-service-turned-restaurant’s okra delights — they also serve, at various times of the day, fried okra, okra soup, okra succotash, and okra rice (also known as pilau). As far as authentic, hand-passed-down recipes and preparations go, Mt. Pleasant has a singular gem in Jenkins’ well-rounded menu lined with homey, welcoming Lowcountry favorites.
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