In any list of foods that are an acquired taste, okra would rank near the top.
An odd-looking and unusual-tasting pod with more than one potential textural issue — it’s spiny on the outside and slimy on the inside — okra never has caught on hereabouts the way it has in southern Asia, west Africa and the American South.
“We sell it all the time,” said Tom Pitleck, produce manager at the Cub Foods in northeast Minneapolis. “It seems like a lot more local farmers are growing it, and I think a lot of foodies are into it.”
That focus on food certainly prompted perhaps the area’s foremost purveyor of fresh produce, Untiedt’s Vegetable Market, to grow and sell okra.
“We had it 25, 30 years ago,” said market owner Jerry Untiedt, “and it kind of lost interest because there was not a huge demand. We started back this year as a creative addition to our CSA [community-supported agriculture] program, always trying to broaden the palate.”
It’s also available at eight Untiedt’s stands and has proliferated the past couple of years at other fresh-food meccas such as the Minneapolis Farmers Market and the Hmongtown Marketplace — and even at upscale stores such as Jerry’s Foods in Edina.
Several factors are likely in play: an influx of newcomers from the aforementioned regions where okra has been a staple; an uptick in ethnic, soul-food and barbecue restaurants serving it; and widespread interest in all manner of once-exotic foods.
“Brussels sprouts, we can’t keep them in,” Pitleck said. “Twenty years ago kale was garbage. Now we sell 10 cases a week. And a lot more people are into things like roasted root vegetables and deep-fried okra.”
It’s also a lot easier to grow here than 25 years ago, when this son of the South (where folks often refer to this veggie as “ok-ree” in the same way some Upper Midwesterners say “rutaba-gee”) found that there were some summers when it simply wouldn’t ripen. Besides climate change, horticultural advances have made a difference.
“Okra is relatively fickle in nature, but they’ve made a lot of improvements in varieties,” Untiedt said. “It’s like with sweet potatoes or jicama, which we couldn’t grow 20 years ago. As the climate continues to warm, we should look at crops like that. I always tell people ‘It isn’t going to be that long before I’ll be selling you peaches.’ ”
Untiedt also considers the plant and its flowers so beautiful “that people should consider growing it as an ornamental.”
Any and all combinations
While dishes such as stewed okra are popping up on the menu at Southern-food star Revival, okra is far from a newcomer at African and Indian restaurants.
Among the local renditions at African eateries: okra stew at Value Foods African Market in Brooklyn Center; “okra sauce” among the “Fufu Dishes” at City Afrique in south Minneapolis, and fried-okra soup at MaMa Ti’s Liberian Restaurant in Brooklyn Park. Meanwhile, one of the more popular offerings at Indian restaurants is a sauté of fresh fried okra with onions, tomatoes, potatoes and spices, sometimes called “Bhindi Masala,” at such locales as India Palace (several locations), Everest on Grand in St. Paul and Dancing Ganesha in Minneapolis.
Indeed, okra has long been a mainstay throughout India, which produced 6 million tons in 2014, dwarfing second-place Nigeria’s 2 million tons. Different regions of the subcontinent use it in varying ways, said local cookbook author/educator Raghavan Iyer.
“We grew up with it,” said the Mumbai native. “And every region uses it all in different ways. Often we stuff our okra, maybe with crushed peanuts or a combination of cayenne, cumin and coriander. In the north they’ll use mango powder, dried and ground. When it’s stuffed, you can braise it or cook it at a high temperature.
“Because it’s got such a unique flavor, it lends itself well to all combinations, whether spices or sauces.”
For Chris Smith, author of “The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration,” that kind of versatility is okra’s prime attribute.
“You can pickle, ferment, and dehydrate it,” writes Smith, whose book includes a chapter called “Pods of the Gods.” “You can fry, boil, bake, grill, and steam it. You can slice, mash, julienne, and dice it. You can bread, batter, marinate, and season it. You can curry, casserole, stir-fry, and stew it.”
Whatever the intended preparation, it’s important to make sure everything is dry when cutting okra, Iyer said. It’s a personal choice whether to retain the slimy coating surrounding the seeds. That part is prized as a thickening agent for gumbo and other soups, but is a challenge for many eaters.
Adoration of the pod
Iyer is particular about the kind of okra he buys, particularly the size and the flexibility. “We snap off the end,” he said. “If it just bends, it can be fibrous. And if it’s large, it’s past its prime and you know it’s not tender.”
Okra’s taste profile can vary but generally is surprisingly subtle, sometimes compared to green beans. Others liken it to a milder eggplant with a hint of asparagus. The flavor elements also can depend on the preparation: Okra comes across as nutty when fried, sweet when combined with other vegetables (especially tomatoes) and often rich when stiffed with spices.
“It is an acquired taste,” Iyer said, “but once you get the right way to handle it, it’s quite delicious. When you cook it right, it’s perfect. A few years ago I was testing a recipe for okra fries and my son literally ate two pounds of it.
“It’s one of those vegetables that I absolutely adore.”
These days, more and more Twin Citians are sharing in that adoration.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.