okra: beautiful, resilient, and surprising, with chris smith
IF YOU HAD TOLD ME I’d be reading an entire book about okra, and often laughing out loud delightedly in the process, I’d have said, “No way.” But here I’ve been lately, my nose in Chris Smith’s “The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration,” gaining an entirely new perspective on this much-maligned but resilient vegetable that Smith predicts will be important for future food security in a changing climate.
British-born Chris’s day job is as communications manager for Sow True Seed in Asheville, North Carolina. Before and after hours, you’ll often find him growing, or maybe cooking and certainly eating okra, lots and lots of okra—or directing The Utopian Seed Project and serving on boards of other non-profits focused on seed and food security and sustainability.
Learn the history of okra, the surprising cousins in the Mallow family it’s related to, and why it’s worth a look for its beauty, productivity, and the range of culinary uses it offers (and why its slimy reputation is just a bad rap). Plus: Enter to win the book in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the July 1, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
getting to know okra, with chris smith
Margaret: It’s so great to speak to you again, Chris. How are you?
Chris: I’m great, Margaret. Thank you. And I just want to start by saying you’re surprised that you were reading a book on okra; I was pretty surprised to find myself having written a book on okra.
Margaret: [Laughter.] I know. And part of the reason being you’re from Southport, England, yes?
Chris: Southport, England. Yes. Where very, very little okra is grown or eaten.
Margaret: And guess where my family’s from?
Chris: Don’t say Southport, North Carolina.
Margaret: O.K., I won’t say … No, Southport, England. My family is from there. So there you go, Chris. Small world. I kid you not. [Laughter.]
Chris: We’ll have to talk about that more another time.
Margaret: O.K., but isn’t that weird?
Chris: That’s very weird. It makes it even more weird because there are so many Americans that I have met that have connections to Southport, England.
Margaret: Yes, yes, yes. So I guess I should have said in the little bio, in the introduction, that you are also the guy at seed conferences who walks around carrying a sign that says, “I want to talk to you about okra.” [Laughter.] How’d you turn into that guy? From a guy from Southport, England, to that guy?
Chris: I guess it was through a pretty rapidly developed fascination with a vegetable that I thought was awesome and brilliant after I got to know it. And so many people I came across, especially with that sign, did not agree with me.
Margaret: It’s funny. And do you remember your first okra?
Chris: I do. That one, I remember well. That was not my best experience. And this is something I found a lot when I’ve spoken to people about okra, is they have a bad first experience with it, and when you have a bad experience with okra, it can really be quite bad. So they never give it a second go. Luckily, I gave it a second go, but my first experience was kind of a greasy-spoon just outside of Clayton, Georgia, and it was deep-fried, probably frozen okra, old oil. It was all the stereotypes that okra is not well-loved for, and I had that bad experience. But I did come back around to okra later in my life and really developed a fascination with it.
Margaret: When I worked for Martha Stewart, for her magazines and so forth, we did what we called “glossary stories.” Like we’d grow every kind of basil we could find and compare and photograph them all and write a story about basil—a glossary of basil, or 40 different winter squashes, or dozens of different tulips or whatever. You grew a lot of okra for the research of this book so tell us how crazy you got.
Chris: Yes. We got pretty crazy. Last year, I grew 76 different varieties of okra, split across three different trials. And then this year, I have an entirely different sets of okras and I have 50 different okras in the ground. So it’s about 125 total that I’m currently experiencing and experimenting with.
Margaret: Out of how many, do you suspect, there are out there, named okras?
Chris: Well, named okras, it’s hard to tell, but the USDA keeps a kind of a gene bank of various accessions and they have over 1,000 different okras in their gene bank. And then India has over 4,000 in their gene bank.
Chris: And that’s just two of the larger world gene banks of okra. So there’s certainly a huge amount of varietal diversity out there.
Margaret: Right. So I was thinking a book about okra would be academic and dry and absolutely this is not. Your book is not; you’re a charming and extremely talented writer. So I wasn’t surprised to read in your bio that you have a master’s in creative writing from the University of Manchester, and have published various short stories and so forth, because it comes through, the way you tackled this subject that could have been academic, or could have been a research paper kind of a thing.
And the device you used in the book of creating conversations between you and okra, as the two characters, passages of dialogue between you and this poor, low self-esteem creature, back and forth, trying to help it develop a better self-image. I mean, besides laughing, as I said in the intro, I was just so touched by that device. So let’s trace a bit of okra’s roots. Where does it come from? And taxonomically, who’s it related to, this poor, low self-esteem vegetable? And what’s its scientific name, I guess, first off?
Chris: Yes. So first off, it’s in the Malvaceae family, or the mallow family. And a lot of plants in that family are known for their mucilaginous qualities. And actually some of those plants are celebrated, things like some of the common mallows are used … Even the marshmallow. The marshmallow is celebrated for some of its slimier qualities.
But then okra is Abelmoschus esculentus. And within the genus, Abelmoschus, there’s, it’s disputed, but somewhere between 8 and 12 species, of which one is okra. So it has a few relatives out there. And the diversity within that genus, it can be traced to have these two centers. One is in Eastern Africa and one is in India. And that kind of gives rise to a little bit of dispute about where its true origins are.
I kind of came to the conclusion, it probably had ancestry going back to India, but it was more than likely domesticated in the Ethiopian region, in East Africa, so I think that’s kind of like … But both of them have pretty valid claims, but it seems that most of the earlier cultivation, and certainly some of the terminology around it and the earlier written record, dates it back to coming from Ethiopia in domestication.
Margaret: And its cousins, besides these other mallows that we might be familiar with, what are some of its other cousins, because some of them are pretty unexpected and not as much maligned as okra? [Laughter.]
Chris: Yes. We’re talking about cousins within the family or cousins within the genus?
Margaret: Within the family, I think they were. Isn’t cotton a relative?
Chris: O.K., yes, I’m with you. So I kind of open the book with a fairly jovial family reunion and it’s a Malvaceae family reunion. And so some of the family members would be, one would be like the most maligned vegetable out there probably, or fruit, is durian fruit, which is a pretty funny one. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced it in kind of Southeast Asia, but when I was in Thailand one time, they actually have these warning signs on public transport saying, “No durian fruit.” It’s like “No weapons. No cursing. No nudity. And no durian fruit.”
Margaret: [Laughter.] It’s that bad, folks.
Chris: It’s got this very malodorous-type smell to it that is pretty offensive. So that’s one of its cousins, which okra is not as maligned as. But then pretty much everything else, things like cacao, cotton. If you’ve seen it growing, then the flower is very hibiscus-esque. So all the hibiscus plants like the sabdariffa, the roselle and the red zinger, as well as the common ornamental hibiscus plants.
Margaret: So cacao, like cocoa? Like-
Chris: Yes, yes.
Margaret: … chocolate?
Chris: Chocolate. Effectively cacao is-
Margaret: So that was at the family reunion.
Chris: They came to the family reunion. And obviously, that one’s a famous one that is loved by everyone so that’s one that okra would probably hide from if they came … would be very shy in its presence.
Margaret: So you really work in the book, and it’s not all the dialogue, but you’ve used it really well to keep the book moving, and just make it a great read, while telling us the history and the taxonomy and so much more about the diversity and so forth. You work [in the dialogue] to convince okra that it has value and, in fact, that it’s a superfood, which science tells us it is. So tell us about that, the nutritional value of okra.
Chris: Yes. There’s two aspects to that kind of superfood element. One is its nutrition is pretty outstanding. It’s very low calories but it’s got good levels of Vitamins A, C and K. And then it’s got some of the bigger minerals, like it’s good in calcium, potassium, magnesium. And then it’s got a whole bunch of micronutrients. But then it’s also got a good amount of soluble and insoluble fibers that are good for digestion, good for … People use it for diabetes to lower the blood sugar level.
And then the mucilage, the slime that nobody likes, that in itself is very healing. And we know that if we stop and think about it, because we eat flax seed and chia seed and aloe. All these products are good for our internal gut health because they’ve got that slimly quality to them. And okra has that same stuff so it’s really healthy to eat.
Margaret: Is Mucilage the former—or maybe it stills exists—the paste, the glue, kind of a brown glue that I remember in my childhood that we used for doing collaging and stuff like that? Does it come from one of these plants, Mucilage, the glue?
Chris: That I really don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a plant-derivative but I-
Margaret: Yes, it’s funny because the same word, you used the word and I thought, “Oh, I wonder if … ” Anyway, there was a glue and it came in a rubber-topped bottle, and I wonder. I’m going to look that up. But so you’re also-
Chris: That was called Mucilage?
Margaret: Yes. M-U-C-I-L-A-G-E. Yes. And it was-
Chris: I don’t think we heard about that in Southport, England-
Margaret: No. And everyone had … probably even before sort of Elmer’s Glue, the white, liquid glue in a plastic bottle and so forth. Anyway, a fun fact to look up, but who knows. But you’re especially drawn to okra because of your commitment to … you work, as I said, at Sow True Seed and you do all this other non-profit, on the board, and you founded an organization. You’re concerned about plants that will be here with us as the climate changes. So this is a resilient plant, isn’t it?
Chris: Yes, it’s super-resilient. And it’s really good for feeding a lot of people, which I think we’ll get to. But in terms of its resilience as just a plant to grow, then, for starters, it’s got an incredible root network. So it’s got a real deep taproot, and it’s got a really good lateral, thick, branching network, so it can mine for its own nutrients. It doesn’t need heavy fertilizer use or anything like that, and it can mine for water so it’s very drought-resistant. And actually, you find that these plants that do have the mucilage within its plant-cell structure, that’s also kind of a drought-tolerant characteristic. So we find that it can perform very well in drought conditions and still produce.
And then in heavy rain conditions, which is actually what we had for most of my trials last year. There was massive crop failings across North Carolina and other parts of the country last year because of all the heavy rains and hurricanes, and okra actually thrives in those hot, wet conditions. It’s more productive with the rain, even though it’s also drought-tolerant. So it can ride both extremes, which is what we’re beginning to experience, these longer periods of intense weather systems that hang around and really upset agriculture. Okra’s able to weather those storms, as it were.
Margaret: Besides its slimly reputation, okra, in its sort of original probably species version, is also spiny and that can be a mouthful. [Laughter.] If you bite on to the wrong one that’s raw, it can be very unpleasant, yes?
Chris: Very much so. It’s funny. I carry around that sign at all these conferences I go to, and it seemed to be an open invitation for people to come and complain to me about okra. So one of the chief complaints from people that are growing okra is that it’s got all these trichomes on the leaves, sometimes the pods, sometimes the stem. Actually, even sometimes the calyx of the flower can have that irritating spines, and that’s no fun to pick. It’s actually quite miserable.
I did a little experiment where I harvested my whole field without any protective clothing, like gloves or long sleeves, just so that if I’m going to write about something, I want to experience it in depth. And it nearly drove me mad. Literally, I felt like a rabid badger as I drove home to try and wash off these spines that were just like an insatiable itch. It was terrible.
Margaret: That’s funny: rabid badger. Now, that’s coming from your roots as well. [Laughter.] Yes. Badger, huh?
Chris: I guess there’s not many badgers out here.
Margaret: No. Huh.
Chris: Very cool animal, though.
Margaret: It is, it is, it is. So I think it was maybe around in the middle of the 20th century, I can’t remember the date exactly, but a big revolution in Oprah … okra. Oprah. [Laughter.] Okra. Was when someone said, “Hey, here’s the first spineless variety,” yes? Was that Clemson?
Chris: Yes. That’s ‘Clemson Spineless.’ And lots of people were looking to develop a pod that was not spiny. And actually, before ‘Clemson Spineless’ was released, and that was in 1939, ‘Clemson Spineless’ was officially released, although the spineless development of that variety started 40 years before that, in the late 1800s. But yes, it was a really an awesome example of how, as a home seed-saver that appreciates certain traits within a crop, we can really direct and change the way those plants perform just by selecting selectively from the plants that perform the best. And this guy was specifically selecting for spinelessness, and he did that for 40 years before Clemson University picked it up and turned it into a saleable variety.
But at the same time as he began his selections for spinelessness, another seed company, I think this was released in the 1890s, released a variety called ‘White Velvet.’ So we see two pods. We have ones that are totally smooth, so there’s no spines, and that was one track. And then the other track, we saw the velvets. And the velvets still have spines, but they’re soft and downy and non-irritating.
Margaret: I see, O.K. Huh, interesting. What’s the sort of range of pod size, shape, color? You said you grew, what, 70 or something—what’s the diversity when they come to harvest and you have all of these pods?
Chris: Yes. It was actually a small concern of mine was, “O.K., I’m going to grow all these different varieties. Are they really just fairly close iterations of ‘Clemson Spineless’ or ‘Red Burgundy?’” But when you walked into my field, I had six plants of every variety and it was just astounding. Not just pod differences, but the plants, the leaves, the stem color. It was really fun to walk down the rows and see dramatic differences.
But in the pods specifically, we saw all sorts of different combinations, but, basically, on color, you’re going from the palest, it’s really, really pale green, almost white, through to these deep, beautiful, dark, almost purplish-reds. And then you have mixes of reds and greens in some pods, so you get some variation there.
But then in shape, you get these long ones that curl like cow horns. You get wiggly ones that don’t actually curl all the way around. You get fat ones and thin ones. And then you have these ridges in okra, where the seeds form, and some of them are totally round. You can’t identify any ridges on the outside. And some of them are deeply ridged and when you cut through them, they look like these beautiful star shapes.
And then, yes, fat and short, long and thin, and then I had ones that I called like the big … “stubby” was the smaller ones that were fat. And then I called, “elongated” was the long ones. And then I had kind of ones in between that were just like big pods. There’s a variety called ‘Louisiana 16 Inch Long Pod’ and I measured it at maturity and it was 16 inches. I couldn’t believe it.
Margaret: True to its name.
Chris: True to its name. So yes, lots of fun.
Margaret: Did you start them from seed? And if so, did you start them at the same time as a certain crop that we might be more familiar with? Like do you sow them at tomato-sowing time or what did you do?
Chris: Yes. I feel like they’re relatively similar to tomatoes in cultivation, in that tomatoes like the heat, but we have to start them early to get them transplanted to grow in our season. Tomatoes are grown all the way through the U.S., but okra’s always thought of as a Southern crop because it needs all that heat to grow. But it’s actually very quick to maturity. It’s 55 to 60 days to maturity from that seed germinating.
Chris: So if you’re further north, you can just start it indoors like you would a tomato, probably not as early as a tomato because it germinates and grows so rapidly, but just give it two to four weeks ahead of that last frost and then you can transplant it out. And if you transplant okra, then you get much quicker production and growth and you could definitely grow it in a fairly short, Northern season, as long as you had relatively hot daytime highs.
Margaret: O.K. So part of the beauty of the book and the adventure in the book, is that you also give a lot of ways for eating okra. And in the last minutes, I wanted to kind of talk about the range. Some of my farmer neighbors grow it and they grow spineless types and we just eat it like crudites. I mean, we just crunch on the pods, fresh, like you would a green bean out of the garden or whatever. They’re delicious, I think. At least, I’m one of the people who doesn’t hate it. [Laughter.] But you have lots of different ways of eating it. Can you tell me a little bit about some favorite ways that you’re using it in the kitchen?
Chris: Definitely, definitely. I do love eating it raw. I think that’s the best way to kind of evaluate all the subtle flavor nuances. So that’s super-exciting. We put it into salads and that kind of thing. One of my favorite recipes is this recipe from a local chef here in Asheville, Steve Goff, and he made an okra pod kimchi. And it was so awesome because he took these red pods and rolled them in coarse salt to just kind of puncture the outside and start them sweating out the moisture, and then have this delicious, spicy chi paste. And when it all fermented together, you got the sour, spicy, crunchy okra. It was phenomenal.
And red pods are like red beans, in that they will leach their colors when you cook them, but kimchi is raw so the red pods keep their color in the red chi paste, and it’s just a beautiful, tasty … [Get the recipe.]
Margaret: Oh brilliant, literally.
Chris: It’s such a great dish. So that’s pretty fun. Obviously, pickled okra. I have a recipe for pickled okra that’s just incredible. And the secret ingredient is turmeric. It really makes them pop.
And then, I guess if I’ve got time, just to throw in some of the crazier stuff: The seeds are edible and high-protein, so we roast the seeds and grind them to make a flour. So I had a local baker, OWL Bakery made an okra seed sourdough, which is nutty and delicious and vegetal. There’s an okra seed savory muffin, okra seed pancakes. There’s all sorts of things you can do with this flour that is gluten-free and rich in flavors. So it’s a really fun flour to work with. So yes, I enjoy working with the seeds. It’s lots of fun.
You can press them for an edible oil. There’s a guy called Clay Oliver, who is selling okra seed oil out of Georgia and it’s just a really well-bodied olive oil-esque oil, so like an olive oil of the South is what we like to call it.
Margaret: Now, did I make this up or is there sort of like a using the raw seeds is almost like a caviarish-textured dish. Is there like a spread or something that people make out of the seeds?
Chris: Yes. So when the pod is just overgrown, so it’s kind of beginning to become fibrous but it’s still green, then the seeds inside are immature at that stage but fully formed. And you can kind of shell them like a bean or a pea or a cowpea or something, and use that for various preparations. A chef out of Charlotte called Clark Barlowe, he makes like an Israeli couscous dish with lemon balm and goat’s cheese, and that kind of thing and it’s really quite tasty [above].
Margaret: And is it true that you had okra as the topper of your Christmas tree? [Laughter.] Besides walking around at conferences with a sign about okra.
Chris: Yes, I kind of went all-in on the okra. And I have two young daughters, and so we get all these dry pods and we’re trying to be creative with ways we could use them. So they make great fire starters. I’ve inoculated them with oyster mycelium to grow mushrooms on the spent, dry pods. And then my daughters and I, we had an art day, we painted them and we made a Christmas star. They’re really quite beautiful. I think there could be a market there for the flower arrangement-type business, because they’ve got so many subtle tones of browns and creams and these beautifully shaped, elegant pods. But we just hung them on our Christmas tree and painted them and it was a pretty fun activity.
Margaret: So in the last literal one minute: favorite varieties that we should be on the lookout for. And where should we look if we want to try growing it next year?
Chris: So I would throw out the ‘Bradford Family’ okra is a really … If you’re a ‘Clemson Spineless’ lover but you want like to … This is like super-‘Clemson Spineless.’ So it’s pretty similar in shape but it tastes better, it grows longer and all that sort of stuff. So that’s an improved ‘Clemson Spineless,’ in my opinion. ‘Aunt Hettie’s Red’ won our taste test of the red varieties. And so both those varieties are available from Sow True Seed for sure and probably other seed companies.
But then the variety that won the taste test was a Turkish variety called ‘Yalova Akkoy,’ which is the name of the province in Turkey where it came from. We did a 60-variety taste test and it beat out every other variety; 15 judges all agreed it was the best okra.
Margaret: That was some party you had. An okra party. [Laughter.]
Chris: Yes, it was a good day. So that one was introduced by Two Seeds in a Pod, which is a small seed company specializing in Turkish varieties. He sold out of that this year and Sow True Seed is growing it this year. So next year, both companies should be carrying that variety and it’s a great variety.
Margaret: O.K. Well, Chris Smith, the book is “The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration.” Thank you so much for making the time and for a really beautifully written book, a lot of fun and a lot of information.
Chris: My pleasure. Lots of fun.
enter to win ‘the whole okra’
I’LL BUY A COPY of Chris Smith’s “The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration,” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:
What would you say to Chris if you saw him carrying that sign of his, “Talk to me about okra”?
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “Count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, July 9, 2019. Good luck to all.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 1, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).