The tomatoes and the potato are natives of the New World, but the United States did not accept them until having traveled abroad, the tomato returned to America from Italy and the potato returned from Ireland.
A similar phenomenon occurred in the reverse direction when okra, a native of the Eastern Hemisphere failed to attract the attention of Europe until, after having been transported to the New World and put to good use it was returned to the Old. Even then its reception could hardly be described as a gastronomic event.
Okra was introduced into the Eastern Hemisphere by slaves from Africa, probably its place of origin, although some votes have been cast for Asia I have read that it was eaten in Africa in prehistoric times but the claim was not substantiated.
"The Horizon Cookbook" reproduces an ancient Egyptian painting alleged to depict slaves harvesting okra from trellises. If the fruits shown were supposed to be okra, however, the Egyptians were singularly inaccurate painters. I have yet to come across any convincing evidence that okra was known to any literate society before our era, a point in favor of an African rather than an Asian origin because Asia became literate before Africa did.
A significant testimonial to the close association between okra and Africa is provided in Brazil where a sect known as the Candomble has transferred its customs from one continent to another and maintained them intact for four centuries on alien soil.
Among the consecrated dishes prepared by its priestesses for ritual observances is one based on okra. This has to be make according to a ritual formula from which any deviation would be a sacrilege. It not only calls for cutting the okra pods into minute pieces (even the small seeds have to be cut into two or more parts), but it also prescribes the order in which the cuts must be made. To prepare the dish in accordance with the sacred rules takes several hours.
Okra is also tied to Africa by its name. It comes from nkruman or nkrumun , from the Twi language spoken on the Gold Coast. Negroes from Angola also brought in okra but called it umbundu, ochinggombo or ngombo . This became "gumbo" but has changed its meaning. Glumbo originally meant the vegetable. It is now applied to almost the only dish, except soups, in which okra is used in the United States. This is a catch-all stew adopted from the Indians. It was thickened with file powder made from dried sassafras leaves.
When okra appeared on the scene, it displaced file powder as the thickener and gave its other name to the stew. There are traditionalists (who do not know they are traditionalists) in the South, however, who still prefer file powder to okra as the thickener. So today there are gumbos that have no gumbo (i.e. okra) in them at all. I am told that using both in the same dish is unadvisable unless you ard fond of stew that has the consistency of glue.
Okra is always harvested unripe, about 2 1/2 months after planting, when the pods which are its most edible part, are from 2 to 9 inches long. If allowed to ripen, okra becomes fibrous and indigestible. In America, it is usually seen sliced in stews and soups. It is cut into thick disks which look like little wheels with a seed nestled between each pair of spokes. The taste is pleasing, a little tart and clean. The discs feel crisp under the teeth, curiously, since the outstanding characteristic of okra is that it is mucilaginous, which is what makes it a good thickener.
It is seldom cooked in the United States as a separate vegetable for its own sake, although there are exceptions - an okra and tomato dish in Texas, for instance, or Charleston's okra pilau, otherwise known as Limping Susan. Fresh okra used to be a fixture in American vegetable markets, however, it is disappearing now because it is one of the foods supermarkets prefer not to handle. Instead we get it canned, frozen or dried, which may be why interest in it is dying. In a 1974 survey made by the Department of Agriculture, adults named okra as one of three vegetables they liked least. Children rated it with four they liked second least.
I read with some surprise in a guide for Americans abroad that okra is "very common in France, in England and Germany less so." I have lived in France for more than 35 years and I have yet to see okra here. My maid, who is French, didn't know what it was when I asked her if she were acquainted with gombo. And my wife, French also, has seen it in exotic food shops but doesn't recall ever having tasted it.
The only Frenchman who to my knowledge has ever shown much interest in this vegetable was Pierre Paul Francois Camille Savorgnan deBrazza. He said he had planted okra wherever he stopped for a few months in his travels because it was "wholesome and nuritious." It is also fast growing. But DeBrassa had expectional opportunities to become acquainted with okra because he explored Africa, a country where okra is found outside of luxury food shops.
Okra, indeed is the very contrare of a luxury food. Now grown almost everywhere in tropical, subtropical and warm temperature regions, it is a food of the Third World, where it is much more than a thickened. In India, where a variety slightly different from the American one is known as bera-kai , it is eaten fresh, prepared like asparagus or pickled. In the Middle East, including Greece and Egypt, where it is called by its Arabic name of bamyah or bamia the tender young pods enter into various combinations, a favorite being okra and chopped meat.
In North Africa, tropical Africa and Madagasar, the pods, fresh or dried and the leaves, also fresh or dried, are widely eaten. The young shoots get around a little less and even the calyxes are eaten, although rarely.
It is Africa which has bestowed its okra dishes on the region of the New World that eats okra most enthusiastically - the Caibbean. The celebrated callaloo, a rich stew or soup, takes its name from a spinachlike vegetable which is one of its ingredients. Coo-coo is an okra dish whose name is a corruption of an African word meaning meal or nush. And foo-foo comes from another African word that refers to the palt color of foods that have been pounded.
Foo-foo is a favorite of Fidel Castro. He describe it as a great delicacy and said that it was "our beefsteak" in the days when he and his guerrillas were operating from their hideouts in the hills.