Saturday, February 4, 2012

Slave Food: Okra

Okra is low in Saturated Fat and Sodium, and very low in Cholesterol. It is also a good source of Protein, Riboflavin, Niacin, Phosphorus, Potassium, Zinc and Copper, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Thiamin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Calcium, Magnesium and Manganese. (source: Nutritional Data)

Okra (botanical name: Abelmoschus esculentus).

Okra: Abelmoschus esculentus, also called guibo and guimyombo, originated in what geo-botanists call the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) center of human food zones. It is still cultivated in present-day Ethiopia on the plateau portions of Eritrea, and in parts of the Sudan. It also became the essential ingredient of Louisiana gumbo.Food scholar Jessica Harris asserts that okra is “the one vegetable absolutely emblematic of the African presence in the New World.”

Indeed, its shape, texture and thickening abilities are predominantly associated with southern cooking, and most especially in southern Louisiana where it has been utilized for centuries to not only thicken but give a name to the state’s most iconic food: gumbo.

The apocryphal story of okra’s journey to the New World is that slaves brought the seeds with them. But as Harris wryly notes, given the horrors of being abducted from one’s home and sold into slavery, it is unlikely one had time to pack even the seeds of a treasured vegetable. Instead, like breadfruit, okra was probably brought over to be cultivated as a cheap foodstuff to feed the burgeoning slave population. While okra is often savored alone, it is most renowned for its thickening abilities, specifically in gumbo. (

Okra or gumbo, as it is called in Africa, was especially favoured in French and Spanish Louisiana during the colonial era, when European and Native American cuisine came together with African cooking to produce the unique Creole cuisine of New Orleans. Gumbo is a popular stew or soup, made up of vegetables mixed with chicken, pork, shrimp, or crawfish with okra as the main ingredient. The stew is thickened with powder from sassafras leaves (gumbo file).

Slaves in South Carolina commonly prepared the seeds of the Okra plant as a coffee substitute. Its leaves were also used medicinally as a softening ingredient in making a poultice, which is a warm mixture of bread or clay that can be applied to aching or inflamed parts of the body. Enslaved women sometimes used okra to achieve abortions by lubricating the uterine passage of pregnant women with the plant’s slimy pods. In West Africa, women today still use okra to induce an abortion, employing much the same method. (source: Slavery in America)


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