Okra: The Slimy Superfood

For some of us, okra is associated with a slippery, slimy mouthfeel that isn’t all that desirable. For others, who have had it prepared or pickled properly, okra has a taste that reminds of us soulful, Southern cooking. Okra is a beautiful, edible, flowering plant that is part of the mallow family (related to cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus) and originated in Africa. Also known as “lady’s fingers” or “gumbo” in some regions, this extremely drought- and heat-tolerant plant grows well in warm climates and offers consumers a wide variety of nutritional benefits. Okra grows well in Central Texas summers, and can sometimes be the only surviving plant on those over 100F days. Read on for more facts about okra’s slimy nature, why okra is so good for you, and how to plant okra in your garden this summer.

Why is Okra Slimy?

Okra pods are known as “mucilaginous,” which results in a slimy or gooey mouthfeel when cooked. This “mucilage” or slime contains soluble fiber that we can digest. Some folks enjoy this texture, while others try to mask the slippery nature of the pods. Keeping the pods intact and briefly cooking (think stir fry) can help to minimize the sliminess of the pod. Adding acidic ingredients (lemon juice, tomatoes, or vinegar) can all help. In the traditional gumbo recipes, the pods are cooked for long amounts of time that will eventually breakdown the mucilaginous materials.

Nutritional Benefits of Okra

  • The okra pods are among the very low calorie vegetables. They provide just 30 calories per 100 g besides containing no saturated fats or cholesterol. Nonetheless, they are rich sources of dietary fiber, minerals, and vitamins; often recommended by nutritionists in cholesterol controlling and weight reduction programs.
  • The pods are one of the rich sources of mucilage substance that help in smooth peristalsis of digested food through the gut and ease constipation condition.
  • The pods contain healthy amounts of vitamin A and flavonoid anti-oxidants such as beta-carotene, xanthin, and lutein. It is one of the vegetables with highest levels of these antioxidants. These compounds are known to have antioxidant properties and are essential for vision. Vitamin A is also required for maintaining healthy mucus membranes and skin. Consumption of natural vegetables and fruits rich in flavonoids helps to protect from lung and oral cavity cancers.
  • Fresh pods are the good source of folates. They provide about 22% of RDA per 100 g. Consumption of foods rich in folates, especially during the pre-conception period, helps decrease the incidence of neural tube defects in the offspring.
  • The okra pods are also an excellent source of vitamin-C, providing about 36% of daily-recommended levels. Research suggests that consumption of foods rich in vitamin-C helps human body develop immunity against infectious agents, reduce episodes of cold and cough and protect it from harmful free radicals.
  • They are rich in B-complex group of vitamins like niacin, vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine), thiamin, and pantothenic acid. The pods also contain good amounts of vitamin K. Vitamin K is a co-factor for blood clotting enzymes and is required for strengthening of bones.
  • The pods are also good source of many important minerals such as iron, calcium, manganese, and magnesium.

How to Plant Okra:

  • Plant outdoors when soil temperatures are above 60F.
  • Sow seeds one inch deep and four inches apart. (You can soak seeds for faster germination rates.) You will need to thin the seeds out once they start to grow – 12-15 inches apart for short varieties and 18-24 inches for taller varieties.
  • Okra grows well in the heat and with limited water. Seed pods are ready to be harvested 48-80 days after sowing depending on the variety.
  • Pick pods while they are small and tender (about the length of your index finger), between 3-6 days after flowering.
  • Wear gloves and long sleeves when cutting the okra because most varieties are covered with tiny spines that will irritate your skin, unless you have a spineless variety.