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I find that most people are surprised to learn that there is a plant called the marshmallow. It grows in marshy areas and, like most mallows, has pretty flowers—though the flowers are not as showy or large as those of the related hibiscus and hollyhock. The marshmallow has a root that was at one time used to make a creamy confection, which has more recently found itself vaguely imitated by the sugar and gelatin puffs we now buy in bags.

Marshmallows are members of the important plant family Malvaceae. However, it is cotton that is the member that gives the family its real importance. So how, you might be wondering, am I ever going to turn this into a story about food? Well, the reason marshmallow roots made good candy is because of the mucilage, which works as a thickening agent. This is a trait it shares with another family member, okra. However, in okra, it is the pods that contain this thickening agent.

If you saw okra growing, you'd recognize the family resemblance, especially to hibiscus. The plant is, in fact, grown as an ornamental in many places. The pods you see in the store, whether fresh, in soup, or in jars (pickled okra is great) are immature. In fact, okra is always harvested unripe, about ten weeks after planting. If the pods ripen, they become fibrous and indigestible.

Okra comes to us from West Africa. It takes a little imagination to see the word okra in the Twi words from which it derives. In Twi, which is spoken on Africa's Gold Coast, it's called nkruman or nkrumun. Hmmm—nkru/okra— okay, I get it. Gumbo is a lot easier to see. It comes from the Bantu word for okra, ngombo. Actually, the fact that both okra and gumbo come from African languages is considered to be part of the evidence for the vegetable's point of origin.

Because okra originated in a region that had no tradition of writing, it's not really known when consumption of okra began. However, we do know when it reached the Western Hemisphere. Not too surprisingly, okra traveled to the New World with Africans bound for slavery.

Oddly enough, despite the fact that okra is from an exotic place, it has never had the cachet of other exotic foods. Still, it now grows in almost every tropical, subtropical, or warm temperate climate region in the world. It's greatest popularity seems to be in poorer or developing nations. In India, it is called bendi-kai, and is eaten fresh, is prepared like asparagus, or is pickled. It is called by its Arabic name—bamyah or bamieh—in the Middle East, Greece, and Egypt, where the tender young pods are used in many dishes, usually in combination with meat. It is a huge favorite in the Caribbean. In Brazil, okra borders on being sacred, and is used in religious rites by the Candomblé, a group that has for four centuries preserved customs from its African roots. And in North Africa, tropical Africa, and Madagascar, it is a staple. The pods are used fresh or dried, and even the leaves are widely eaten.

In Europe, it is still a rarity, found in jars in the import section or exotic restaurants. The exceptions are Greece, as noted above, which takes many of its culinary cues from the Middle East, and Spain, where it was introduced by the Moors. In the U.S., it is only widely used in the South, where it's fried, pickled, and used in soup. (Even if you don't like okra in soup, try it pickled or fried—it's great both ways.)

Okra is tasty and, like most vegetables, very nutritious. One of the things that recommends it most highly is large amounts of fiber—both soluble and insoluble.

While there is gumbo in Louisiana, it is not exactly the same as gumbo from Africa. Though obviously influenced by the area's African heritage, gumbo in the South may also use filé as a thickener. Filé is ground sassafras leaf, which the Choctaw Indians of Louisiana introduced to early settlers. Even though gumbo means okra, gumbo in the South means soup. It may have either filé or okra, but rarely both. It will also usually have andouille sausage and/or seafood, in addition to the chicken. African gumbo is much simpler, and much cheaper. And it's delicious.

This recipe is the West African version of gumbo.


2 quarts water

1 3-lb. chicken, cut up (or 3 lb. favorite pieces)

2 medium onions, chopped (should be at least 2 cups, more is okay)

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground black pepper

¼ tsp. fresh grated ginger

2 cloves garlic, halved

¼ tsp. crushed hot red pepper (optional)

2 tomatoes, chopped

2 red peppers (sweet), chopped

2 cups okra, sliced

Place the chicken pieces, 1½ chopped onions, salt, pepper, ginger, and garlic in a large saucepan. Add two quarts water, cover, and simmer for 1 hour. Remove cover. Add tomatoes and red peppers (and crushed hot red pepper, if using) and bring to the boil for 5 minutes. Reduce heat, add the remaining ½ onion and the sliced okra. Cook for another 10 minutes. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, if necessary. Serve in soup plates, spooning the soup over a piece of chicken.

Serves 4‑6.


If you use frozen okra (which works perfectly well), a 1 lb. bag is just about exactly what you need for this recipe. Just thaw and slice. Also, for ease of serving, I usually use boneless, skinless chickecn breasts, and just add a can of broth to compensate for the flavor normally gained from boiling bones and skin in your soup.

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