Coterie gives okra an Indian-inspired twist with cumin, mint, carmelized onions and cilantro-mint yogurt | Credit: Ruta Smith

If there is any vegetable synonymous with the Lowcountry and Charleston, it’s okra. In fact, one of the city’s (and the United States’) oldest cookbooks — The Carolina Housewife, written in 1847 by Southern socialite and “Lady of Charleston” Sarah Rutledge — has some of the earliest mentions of okra recipes.

While Charlestonians are accustomed to chowing down on succotash, okra soup, fried okra, pickled okra and okra pirloo, many people outside of the area, and especially outside of the South, despise the vegetable that Lowcountry natives grew up eating regularly.

But here, okra thrives — culturally and ecologically. Charleston’s subtropical climate, with its long hot summers and mild winters, gives okra the long growing season as it had in its native Africa (or debatedly in Asia where wild okra also grows). Its elongated shape led to the plant’s nickname “Lady Fingers,” and it surprisingly is in the mallow family, which is akin to hollyhock and hibiscus.

You can see its relation to those plants when okra blooms. For only a few hours in one day, the budding okra pod opens into a pale yellow flower with a deep red center, before quickly closing and turning itself into a short pod that will eventually grow.

Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co.’s deep-fried okra is paired with cilantro lime aioli | Photo by Ruta Smith

Like many of the things that have made Charleston what it is, okra was first brought to South Carolina’s shores in the 1700s during the trans-Atlantic slave trade — either directly from West Africa or through trade from the Caribbean. In the earliest years of America, okra was beloved. African cooks would make dishes similar to those they had at home and everything on the plant was eaten — leaves and pods alike.

But somewhere down the line, okra got a bad reputation for its mucilaginous properties, even though many dishes like okra soup rely on that gelatinous consistency as a natural thickener.
While okra may get a bad rap outside of the South, Charleston has never abandoned one of its favorite ingredients. Okra can still be found growing in backyards, popping up on restaurant menus and currently at most local farmers markets, where the best okra is just coming into season.

Tips for enjoying okra

If you’re thinking of giving okra another try or you’re looking for new ways to incorporate it into your diet, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Okra grown in warm months will always be the freshest. In the winter and later fall months, opt for okra that has been frozen either locally or commercially. If you want to save some of your farmers market summer okra, gently rinse the fresh okra in cold water to remove any dirt or debris, then dry with paper towels. Cut or keep the pods whole before freezing in an airtight bag. Come winter when you’re ready for okra stew, gumbo or anything else, you have summer-fresh okra ready to go.

Gillie’s Seafood on James Island serves fried okra and okra gumbo | Photo by Ruta Smith

Also look for okra on the smaller side — the size of your pinky or index finger is a good indicator that the okra was still young at its harvest, and you’ll be less likely to encounter okra that is woody and tough. Note, however, there are some okra varieties that grow larger and longer.
Okra can also come in many colors. You want to look for brightly colored okra, free from many blemishes. That being said, all okra — no matter its color at freshness — will turn green once it’s cooked thanks to the anthocyanins (water-soluble pigments found in many plants that are red, blue or purple) that are broken down during the cooking process to reveal the chlorophyll or natural green pigment that was there all along.

Embrace or avoid the slime

Okra’s sliminess can either be embraced (again, its use in soups, stews and even sauces is unmatched), or hidden. The more okra is cut or chopped, the more of the mucilage in the okra’s cell walls are released. To avoid this, either keep okra whole, or cut minimally.

Another way to combat the “slime” is by adding an acid — lemon juice or vinegar are always good choices. Frying okra either in a batter or on its own will keep it crispy, as will grilling or broiling at a high temperature.

All of these methods also help when you may encounter “hairy” varieties of okra. However, personally, I think the best way to enjoy okra is fresh. Take a bite out of a fresh okra pod, and you’ll forget what you’re eating. Make a dipping sauce or eat it plain straight off of the plant. Fresh okra is also wonderful in salads as a crunchy addition. Try some with summer tomatoes and corn.

But if you’re looking for a restaurant okra dish, there are many places around the city where you can find the ingredients well-prepared. Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co. serves crispy, crunchy, deep-fried battered slides of okra with a bright and tangy cilantro lime aioli. There is zero slime and all crunch with this okra dish that also features candied benne, which adds a special bite of crunch and sweetness to round out the entire dish.

FIG takes a luxurious spin on okra by letting the voluptuous Nat Bradford variety shine with a quick cook and a generous sprinkling of sea salt before pairing it with a bright, creamy, perfectly made bearnaise sauce.

At Coterie, okra shows the beauty of how diasporas work: It’s a comforting Indian-inspired dish made with caramelized onion, cumin, ginger and cilantro-mint yogurt and served with paratha that still feels like you’re eating stewed okra and tomatoes at home in the South.

And of course, Charleston’s favorite okra dish known by locals as okra stew, okra soup or okra gumbo (“gumbo” is actually a West African word for okra, as well as “okro”) is served up at Gillie’s Seafood on Folly Road where you can get a cup or a bowl of the okra and tomato-based dish, of course, served with hot white rice. Add the grilled shrimp — it’s worth it!

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