Okra, whose name is derived from the West African "nkruma", comes from a large vegetable plant thought to be of Ethiopia origin. The okra plant fruit is a fuzzy, green colored and ribbed "lantern"-shaped pod that is approximately 2-7 inches in length. This vegetable flourished throughout North Africa and the Middle East where the seed pods were consumed cooked and the seeds toasted, ground, and served as a coffee substitute. Cultivated by the Egyptians by the 12th century B.C., okra was brought to the Caribbean and United States by African slaves in the 1700s. Thriving in tropical and warm temperate climates, it is in the same plant family as hibiscus and cotton. Today, in the United States, the leading okra producers are Texas, Florida, Georgia and California. Okra can be found in African, Middle Eastern, Greek, Turkish, Indian, Caribbean, and South American cuisines. In the United States, okra is commonly associated in Southern, Creole, and Cajun cooking since it was initially introduced into the United States in its southern regions.
Okra is typically available frozen, pickled and canned year round throughout the United States. In the South, fresh okra pods may be available year round, with fresh supplies peaking in July and August in other areas. Okra comes in three grades: fancy, choice, and jumbo, and are based on the length of the okra pod. Fancy okra pods are up to 3-1/2 inches long. Choice grade okra pods are between 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 inches long. Jumbo okra pods are over 4-1/2 inches long but still tender.
The most common varieties are the Clemson, Emerald, Lee, Annie Oakley, Chinese okra, and Purple Okra:
• Clemson variety is dark green with angular pods. This okra takes less than two months to mature.
• Emerald type is dark green, with smooth round pods.
• Lee is a spineless type known by its deep bright green, very straight angular pods.
• Annie Oakley is a hybrid, spineless kind of okra with bright green, angular pods. It takes less than two months from seeding to maturity.
• Chinese okra is a dark green type grown in California and reaches 10 to 13 inches in length. These extra-long okra pods are sometimes called "ladyfingers."
• Purple Okra a rare variety you may see at peak times. There is a version grown for its leaves that resemble sorrel in New Guinea.
When buying fresh okra, make sure that you select dry, firm, okra. Look for dark green young pods free of bruises, tender but not soft. Typically, the smaller pods will be the tenderest.