In Puerto Rico we call it guingambó (geen-gahm-BOH) or variations on that word, which seems to derive from the original African term for it. You may know it as okra (which may be another African derivative) or ladyfingers for the elegant shape of its conical pods. Usually bright green, there are gorgeous red varieties too (the red color doesn’t really hold up in cooking, unfortunately). It’s available year-round in hot places, but in the Northeast, it is a summer to early fall vegetable.
It is said to originate in Abbysinia/Ethiopia/Eritrea and made its way across Africa and eventually to the Americas where it was particularly embraced in the Caribbean and Southern — especially French –U.S. There were loads of Africans imported against their will to those regions but okra came with them and it happens to grow well there. And they had to do a lot of the cooking so they incorporated it in creative ways.
Gumbo, that deservedly beloved stew cook-up from the New Orleans area,was thickened with okra and probably gets its name from that same African word that sounds like guingambó, although you might think that “gummy” has something to do with it too. After all, that gooey stuff inside called “mucilage” definitely brings things together. Today it is gaining popularity amongst non-Southern, non-Caribbean people and that is a good thing! You can bread and fry it, which is on my list to try soon, and when my CSA farm has some I will eat it raw and love it up, but the way I adore it is stewed.
My dad claimed not to like okra for the usual reason: TOO GOOEY! But then I brought some red okra home fresh from an organic farm in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico (Productos Sana) and he went at it and changed his mind. Funnily enough, my late maternal grandmother (Puerto Rican) used to make a delicious stew. My dad (Aruban), in his experimenting, inadvertently ended up creating the same dish with nearly the same flavors as she used and I am very happy!
The recipe is below, but first, a few valuable links for food history nerds.
The history of okra fron Texas A&M Agricultural Extension.
The Southern Foodways Alliance has a nice little history of gumbo that refers to okra and that I find very helpful.
And when it comes to reducing the goo, try this background piece from NPR
The Number One expert on the foodways of the African Diaspora is Jessica B. Harris. I have interviewed her as a source for articles and she is just wonderful. More on Ms. Harris here.
Guingambó guisado (Stewed Okra Criollo style)
1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
½ Cup onion, chopped fine
¼ Cup red pepper, chopped
1 Tbs garlic, minced
¼ Cup jamón de cocinar (or ham steak) diced
1 -2 Tbs sofrito (commercial or homemade) or 1-2 Tbs of minced green/red cubanelle pepper and cilantro
1 lb okra, cut in ½”rounds
4 Cups water
Salt to taste
Heat the oil and sauté all ingredients but the okra, water and salt until tender and fragrant. Add the okra and water, bring to a boil, then lower and simmer for 20 minutes. Salt to taste and serve with white rice.