Gumbo, also called okra, was introduced into the Americas by African slaves. Those who came from the Gold Coast called it nkruman, which was much later corrupted into “okra”; those from Angola called it ngumbo which became “gumbo” and also became the name of the okra-based Creole soup or stew.
The same root is also found in Ghana in the Twi language.
Origin and expansion
Okra grows wild on the alluvial banks of the Nile, and it was the Egyptians who first cultivated it in the Nile basin. It was later grown across northern Africa and eventually extended to the Mediterranean basin and India. Next it was taken to the Americas: to Brazil, Dutch New Guinea and New Orleans, before spreading to the United States, reaching Philadelphia by 1781.
Okra growing was closely linked to the development of plantations, since it was the food on which black slaves subsisted.
Soil: sandy clay rich in organic material – okra does not grow well in dense clay or overly-wet soil
Watering: can tolerate periods of drought but grows better with regular irrigation. Okra is usually green, though there also exists a red variety whose colour disappears in cooking. The okra plant can reach 2.4 m in height; on the other hand, there are varieties that do not exceed 90 cm.
The leaves are cordiform (heart-shaped), lobed or divided, and grouped to look like an open flower. The okra plant is easily recognized by the magnificence of its purple-centered yellow flowers that resemble those of the hibiscus (to which it is related).
Okra is shaped like a long chili pepper and looks like a small zucchini. It has a streamlined shape and pointy end with a little collar near its stem end, and a downy and slightly sticky green skin marked by four deep ridges. Its flesh is soft, mild in flavour and contains many soft edible white seeds. The ripe seeds are sometimes used as a substitute for coffee beans, while the stems are used in paper making.
Seeding takes place four weeks after the last frosts, when the earth is warm and nighttime temperatures do not dip lower than 10° C. In the southern US, okra planting always coincides with cotton planting. It is better to plant small plants than to sow hastily since the plant will grow bushy too quickly and will then have to be pruned to allow for harvesting. If you opt for pruning, it must be done no later than 80 to 100 days before the first frost.
Okra is an annual plant that is self-pollinating. The dry pods can also be gathered late in the season to provide seeds for the next year’s planting. Space the plants 30 to 40 cm apart.
Okra requires several pickings and matures rapidly, especially in hot regions. Allow 4-6 days between flowering and the maturing of the fruit. It should always be picked young before the seeds form. Picking can be done after the fifth day, leaving 1 cm of stem on the branch. Never pick okra in the rain or in damp weather. Picking can be done every day or two.
Although there are differences among particular varieties, okra is generally picked when between 10 and 15 cm long while the pods are still tender. Okra must be picked regularly and the old pods removed, otherwise the plant will stop producing. Be sure to wear rubber gloves, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, since the plant’s prickles can cause itching.
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