May 2008

Vegetation Profile: Okra

Okra (American English: [ˈoʊkɹə], British English [ˈəʊkɹə], [ˈɒkɹə]), also known as lady’s finger, bhindi (Hindustani) and gumbo, is a flowering plant in the mallow family (along with such species as cotton and cocoa) valued for its edible green fruits. Its scientific name is Abelmoschus esculentus.

The species is an annual or perennial, growing to 2 m tall. The leaves are 10–20 cm long and broad, palmately lobed with 5–7 lobes. The flowers are 4–8 cm diameter, with five white to yellow petals, often with a red or purple spot at the base of each petal. The fruit is a capsule up to 18 cm long, containing numerous seeds.

The species apparently originated in the Ethiopian Highlands, though the manner of distribution from there is undocumented. The Egyptians and Moors of the 12th and 13th centuries used the Arab word for the plant, suggesting that it had come from the east. The plant may thus have been taken across the Red Sea or the Bab-el-Mandeb strait to the Arabian Peninsula, rather than north across the Sahara. One of the earliest accounts is by a Spanish Moor who visited Egypt in 1216, who described the plant under cultivation by the locals who ate the tender, young pods with meal.

From Arabia, the plant spread around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and eastward. The lack of a word for okra in the ancient languages of India suggests that it arrived there in the Common Era. The plant was introduced to the Americas by ships plying the Atlantic slave trade by 1658, when its presence was recorded in Brazil. It was further documented in Suriname in 1686. Okra may have been introduced to the southeastern North America in the early 18th century and gradually spread. It was being grown as far north as Philadelphia by 1748, while Thomas Jefferson noted that it was well established in Virginia by 1781. It was commonplace throughout the southern United States by 1800 and the first mention of different cultivars was in 1806.

Until I moved to Saigon, I never knew that okra or đậu bắp made an appearance in Vietnamese cuisine. I always associated the vegetable with southern specialties like gumbo.

In Vietnam, đậu bắp is most commonly found in a soup called canh chua alongside pineapples, tomatoes, and upright elephant ears (bac ha). I’ve also encountered it sauteed and served as a side dish at restaurants specializing in broken rice and paired with raw meets at DIY grilling eateries.

In my experience with Vietnamese-American home cooking and restaurant fare, đậu bắp is pretty much non-existent. Is it just me or has đậu bắp lost its importance in Vietnamese food abroad?

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14 thoughts on “Vegetation Profile: Okra

  1. They are still very much enjoyed in Vietnamese-Australian restaurants and families, but maybe because they are more expensive than other Asian veg that people don’t buy a whole lot of them normally. I thought okra was a ‘compulsary’ ingredient in your canh chua, no matter where you are? Southern Vietnamese overseas also enjoy boiled okra with fermented tofu, and of course BBQ okra with chilli salt, or may be just people I know *lol*

  2. Love the site! My parents always made a okra and spinach canh, which was eaten much more often than canh chua. I’m not sure if it was a family dish or something other families have eaten. My mom’s side of the family also make boiled okra but have it with straight up fish sauce, which is the way my wife and I prefer to eat it.

  3. hi! I have come here via Wandering Chopsticks.

    dau bap is definitely still a part of my family’s cuisine! my dad grows heaps of it, and sometimes my mother cooked it in with rice.

  4. I’ve never known of Dau Bap until I came to America and saw it is cooked in Canh Chua here. When I was in Vietnam, we only used Bac Ha.

  5. I guess its a regional thing, both in america and viet nam. Up in New England, we hardly see it, but when we do, we always make canh chua.

  6. We have some in the fridge right now actually ^^; If you cook it improperly, it makes your soups have this sticky soupy drippy consistency which is similar to another canh that is made, I have no idea how to spell the vegetable, but it’s nonexistent on the East coast, but abundant in Cali.

  7. Yes I love the historical profile! Okra is a largely unexplored vegetable for me, I’ve only had it a few times. It’s an odd veggie if you aren’t used to it, I should seek it out more often. Beautiful pix btw

  8. My family is from Hue, and we’ve never cooked with it. Our canh chua has pickled bamboo shoots instead of okra. The first time I had it was when my brother-in-law, whose family is from Hanoi, used it in canh as well as boiled and dipped in nuoc mam. 🙂

  9. I don’t know about others but my family (extended and otherwise) still used plenty of okra at home. We’re originally from Saigon but we live in New Jersey now. We still make canh chua with all the trimmings.

  10. Vietnamese americans eat okra, I used to eat it at home very often. Btw, the d is a đ, so its đậu bắp not dậu bắp.

  11. Maybe it depends on the region your family is from? I’ve had it in dishes that my family prepares, as well as at other Vietnamese-American homes.

  12. I never had good okra. My dad was born in Vietnam and a while ago, last year in fact, my mom bought some and steamed it. The rest of us didn’t like it but my dad [had] ate them all.

    What’s another way to cook them so they aren’t so slimey.

  13. I’ve never seen okra in Vietnamese dishes! I always associated it with East Indian or American southern food!

  14. Hey everyone! Thanks for all of your personal accounts about okra in Vietnamese food. I’m especially jealous of those of you who grew up eating okra ;-). I’m guessing that high prices and lack of availability in San Diego kept my grandma from putting this veggie in her cooking. Shucks!

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