(Hibiscus, or Abelmoschus, esculentus), herbaceous, hairy, annual plant of the mallow family (Malvaceae). It is native to the tropics of the Eastern Hemisphere and is widely cultivated or naturalized in the tropics and subtropics of the Western Hemisphere for its edible fruit. The leaves are heart-shaped and three- to five-lobed; the flowers are yellow with a crimson centre. The fruit or pod, hairy at the base, is a tapering, 10-angled capsule, 10–25 cm (4–10 inches) in length (except in the dwarf varieties), that contains numerous oval, dark-coloured seeds. Only the tender, unripe fruit is eaten. It may be prepared like asparagus, sauteed, or pickled, and it is also an ingredient in various stews and in the gumbos of the southern United States; the large amount of mucilage (gelatinous substance) it contains makes it useful as a thickener for broths and soups. The fruit is grown on a large scale in the vicinity of Istanbul. In some countries the seeds are used as a substitute for coffee. The leaves and immature fruit long have been popular in the East for use in poultices to relieve pain.
Okra provides three food products: pods, leaves, and seeds. All have dietary value. Half a cup of the cooked pods, for instance, provides nearly 10 percent of the recommended levels of vitamin B6 and folic acid, not to mention fair amounts of vitamins A and C. The leaves contain protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C. The seeds are potentially a good source of an especially nutritious protein, rich in tryptophan and having adequate levels of the nutritionally vital sulfur-containing amino acids. Okra protein thus complements and fulfills that of cereal grains and legumes, not to mention of root crops.
It is widely believed that Okra came into the Americas with the slave ships from West Africa. Either it was introduced by the slavers or brought secretly by the slaves continue to baffle historians and researchers. Okra was quickly accepted by the native Caribbean people into their diet.
Okra and tomatoes are a classic match in the South. They come of age at the same time. They stew together and smother together. When okra is fried, a sliced tomato stands by.
Okra figures so prominently in the legacy of Southern cooking that it is difficult for Southerners to imagine summers without it. (Every last county in Georgia grows it, said Mr. Donck, an organic grower, who sends his produce to Atlanta restaurants.) Though okra makes its way into fields above the Mason-Dixon line (and to farmers’ markets up north come August), it is a treasure Southerners have pretty much kept to themselves.