By Hwaa Irfan
Cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, okra/lady’s fingers/gumbo has become a part of the staple diet of many people’s of the South. Belonging to the family Malvaceae /mallow of the plant kingdom, Abelmoschus esculentus is native to Ethiopia, but the name ‘Okra’ comes from the Igbo word ‘ọ́kụ̀rụ̀’ of Nigeria. In other Bantu languages, it is known as ‘kingombo’, which might explain the derivatives: gumbo – African-American, ‘quiabo’ – Portuguese, ‘quimbombó/guigambó – Spanish-French. In Hindi, it is known as ‘bhindi’/’bhendi’, and in North Africa is it known as ‘bamya’!
Abelmoschus esculentus is a perennial plant that can grow as tall as 2 meters. The plant prefers a tropical- warm temperate climate, and is perfect for growing in hot climates where the soil is poor, being drought tolerant. With leaves that can grow as long as 20cm, the leaves are a palmate – heart shape with 5 – 7 lobes. The pale creamy-yellow flowers with their broad-overlapping petals have a red-purple spot at the base of each petal. The fibrous, ribbed fruit/vegetable is the pod that we eat, and encloses numerous white seeds.
Traditional cultures have particular customs that facilitate their agricultural practices, which is gender orientated. In traditional Nigerian practice, planting, harvesting, and marketing is done by women, so the custodians of traditional knowledge (plant genetics) of plants like Abelmoschus esculentus, is with the female agriculturalists.
From the time of planting, it only takes two months by which it can be harvested, and continued to bloom for a more ripe harvest. Regardless of the short term benefits of commercial production of Abelmoschus esculentus, the taste, texture, colour and flavor of organically grown Abelmoschus esculentus has been found to be far superior.
Chemical Properties include:
- Linoleic acid
- Oleic acid
- Palmitic acid
- Palmitoleic acid
Some of the effects on human health via human consumption is exampled as follows:
Antioxidant – In a study looking at the diet of South Asian migrants in Bradford, U.K., the antioxidant properties identified in Abelmoschus esculentus were found to be strong candidates in the treatment of disorders of the central nervous system in preference to synthetic antioxidants which exhibit toxicity.
Anti-inflammatory – In Ayurvedic medicine, the anti-inflammatory properties in the mucilage is effective in the treatment of gastro-intestinal disorders, especially pertaining to the intestinal wall.
Antispasmodic – This quality in the seeds is beneficial to the gastro-intestinal tract
Cordial – This quality in the seeds acts as a tonic and a stimulant to the heart, which is supported by linoleic acid, an important polyunsaturated fatty acids that plays a role in the prevention heart vascular diseases.
Demulcent – This quality of the roots is very active due to the mucilage, which can be used to replace plasma. It is a quality that is also present in the leaves, the skin, and especially in the young pods.
Diuretic – The young pods act as a diuretic and emollient
Sudorific – An infusion of the roasted seeds has sudorific properties increasing perspiration to expel toxins and excess water.
Rich in protein and dietary fibre, and very low in saturated fats, and cholesterol, some of the nutritional properties of Abelmoschus esculentus are:
- Pantothenic acid
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B₆
- Vitamin B₁₂
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin K
Diuretic – Releases accumulation of water that leads to swelling/water retention, especially a decoction of the roots
Emollient – Soothes and softens the skin, and all mucous membranes
Popular in the Caribbean, India, North Africa, and Pakistan, do not let the furry texture of the skin deter one from a nutritional experience, as when it is cooked, which does not take long, the gelatinous substance from the skin, which makes it a good and natural thickening agent in stews. The subtle taste means that one can ‘bend’ the flavouring any which way like aubergines. If one is fortunate enough to have access to the fresh abundant leaves, they make good greens.
Okra should be packed and transported within 36 hours after harvesting. There are different types:
Clemson – dark green with angular pods.
Emerald – dark green, with smooth round pods.
Lee – deep bright green, spineless, with angular pods.
Chinese – dark green with extra-long okra pods
Purple – a rare variety that may be seen at peak times.
When buying okra, look out for those that have been force chilled for commercial purposes, the okra should be dry, but firm. The green pods turn a brown-olive green, yellow varieties turn brown, and burgundy varieties become a dull brown-red –so do not buy.
If is not going to be cooked right away, it should washed, dried and stored in a refrigerator in a loose manner, but it only keeps for a few days – why have it kept longer if the nutritional value is going to dissipate!
If one wants to reduce the mucilage/slime, then reduce the amount of time the okra is cut, the best way is to trim of the ends, and cook the pods whole. It can be steamed, boiled, pickled, sautéed, or stir-fried whole. It should not be cooked in pans made of iron, copper or brass since the chemical properties turns okra black.
An infusion of the roots is used in the treatment of syphilis.
The juice of the roots is used externally in Nepal to treat cuts, wounds and boils
The leaves furnish an emollient poultice useful for drying-cracking skins that take time to heal
The stems have been used like jute, and have been used in the textile industry, as well as to make paper.
In balance He gave us everything we needed, but as for what we want!
“Abelmoschus esculentus – (L.)Moench.” http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Abelmoschus%20esculentus
Acharya, D, and Shrivastava, A. “Medicinal Uses of Some Important Spices by the Indigenous Tribal People of India.” http://www.sacredearth.com/ethnobotany/medicines/IKspiceMED3.php
Alam, S, et al. “Chemical Analysis of Okra Bast Fiber (Abelmoschus esculentus), and Its Physico-Chemical Properties.” Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management. Vol. 5 #4 Fall 2007.
Ansari, N.M. et al. Antioxidant Activity of Five Vegetables Traditionally Consumed by South-Asian
Mahatyagi, R. “http://www.yatan-ayur.com.au/pdfs/okra1.pdf
Migrants in Bradford, Yorkshire, UK.” Phytother. Res. 19, 907–911 (2005) DOI: 10.1002/ptr.1756
Osawaru, M, and “Ethnobotanical Studies Of West African Okra [Abelmoschus Caillei (A. Chev) Stevels] From Some Tribes Of South Western Nigeria.” Science World Journal Vol 5 (No 1) 2010. ISSN 1597-6343
Taiwo, L. et al. (2002) “Organic Okro (Abelmoschus esculentus): Its Growth, Yield And Organoleptic Properties”, Nutrition & Food Science, Vol. 32 Iss: 5, pp.180 – 183 DOI:10.1108/00346650210445730
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