by Travis Seward for USA TODAY 10Best

Okra: What it is and how to cook with it

Despite being such a common sight in gardens throughout the Southeast, okra isn't particularly well known elsewhere in the United States. But it should be, as the uses for this vegetable are incredibly diverse.

What is okra?

It's a member of the mallow family – related to cotton, hibiscus and hollyhock – and thrives in the warm summer climate of the South.

Mature seed pods tend to be four to five inches long, becoming tougher and less edible along the way. The younger pods are tender and sweet in flavor, which some compare to a green bean, eggplant or asparagus.

Where did okra come from?

The origin of okra is unclear. Scholars suggest that it was introduced to Egypt in the 12th century B.C. and that its cultivation then spread to North Africa and the Middle East.

It was most likely brought to the U.S. by enslaved people from West Africa through the Caribbean, and its popularity originates with the Créoles who were taught how to properly harvest and prepare okra by slaves.

Why is okra slimy?

When okra is cut, a mucilaginous (thick and sticky) juice leaks out. This juice makes an excellent thickener for stews and soups, such as gumbo, but it does result in a gooey mouthfeel.

How do you cook okra?

Okra is excellent fried, roasted, grilled, pickled, sautéed, stewed or when added to soups. Okra pods are best when young, tender and harvested up to five days after flowering.

When simply fried, okra is warm, crunchy and can be eaten as a side dish or appetizer. The pods are sliced, dipped in egg or buttermilk, dredged in a mixture of cornmeal and flour, and then fried in oil.

To roast, whole pods can be tossed in olive oil with quartered onion, fresh garlic and mint. When pickled, small pods are packed into a jar and filled with a simmering mixture of chili peppers, dill water, vinegar and salt.

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