I’m really not a fussy eater. While I draw the line at some animal parts (Rocky Mountain oysters, anyone?) and various invertebrates (no deep-fried scorpions in my diet!), I’m not nearly as fussy about dining on plants. Of course, I think some plants taste better than others—I’m a big fan of broccoli, artichokes, and papayas, for example, while I tend to avoid cucumbers and those bitter Italian greens—but for the most part, if it’s prepared well, I’ll eat it.
I don’t do okra. I’ve had okra (also known as lady’s fingers or gumbo) in soups, stewed, curried, stir-fried, roasted, deep fried, and in various other random recipes that my friends—skilled in the culinary arts—assured me I’d love. All I can say is, they were wrong. I admit, I like the flavor. No problem there. But the slime gets me every time.
Somehow, my brain refuses to admit that okra is a plant, and instead I get mental images of fat, juice worms and banana slugs. Ewww.
So, being me, I began to wonder—why is okra so slimy? Does this goo fill some need in the plant’s life? Does it protect the pods from predators that might otherwise curtail seed dispersal? Does it somehow aid the plant’s health? Why would God create something that tastes so good, but is nonetheless so disgusting?
Well, it turns out that the slime does serve a purpose—it helps the plant store water. Okra tends to grow in hot places, and the ability of the seed pods to store water gives the developing seeds an extra safety margin when the weather gets too dry.
The same slime, technically “mucilage” is found in aloe vera leaves, another species that inhabits hot, dry areas. I suspect many succulents and cacti also store mucilage.
While this answered my initial question, I then began to wonder—since I enjoy the flavor of okra, is there a way to prepare it that eliminates the slime?
The answer is a qualified yes. First of all, simply applying heat increases the sliminess. So does immersion in water. Then I learned that sliminess rises with pH. Now think of the most popular okra recipe—dipping it in batter (which is alkaline) and frying it. Yup, by washing your pods, then dipping them in batter and cooking them, you’ve just maximized the goo factor.
On the other hand, lowering the pH by adding an acid, such as tomatoes, reduces the amount of slime by changing the properties of the molecules in the mucilage. I’ll keep that in mind, should I ever be coerced into preparing okra at home.
While I shudder at the thought of filling my mouth with goop, some people actually prefer their okra to be as slimy as possible. There are recipes that call for adding baking soda, another way to raise the pH and thus the viscosity of the dish.
To be fair, all that slime is apparently good for you, with plenty of fiber (similar to that found in flax seeds). Still, I’m glad there are other options when it comes to getting enough fiber in my diet.
It takes a long time to grow okra. The plants want heat and humidity, two conditions what are in short supply in this part of Colorado. I’ve seen it growing in Denver, 2,000 feet lower than my yard, and I’m sure that I could start them indoors and coddle them along all summer, but I’d prefer to devote my limited garden space to more palatable crops, such as pole beans and Swiss chard. Okra just isn’t a good choice. Darn.