In the mass of bunched greens on one table at the Old Oakland Farmers’ Market, I found a type of greens that I had never seen. I asked the farmer what it was, and she told me “okra leaves.”
(Update: commenter beautdogs correctly points out that the plant in the photo is not okra. I think there was a translation problem or some misplaced nicknaming. It turns out that these plants are actually jute, (Colichortus olitorius). I explained more about this in a post in 2010.)
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus, or perhaps Hibiscus esculentus) is native to Africa, and was brought to the Americas during the slave trade of the 18th and 19th century. Therefore, it is not surprising that the word okra comes from a West African language (Akan). Interestingly, in an Angolan language, the vegetable is called “gumbo,” a word that is associated in the U.S. with a rich, spicy stew cooked in the American South (especially Louisiana).
There are a multitude of recipes and piles of information about the vegetable okra, but almost nothing about the leaves. Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, by Elizabeth Schneider, has several pages about okra, including about ten recipes, but not a single mention of eating the leaves. The Oxford Companion to Food has an oblique reference, via a comment that okra is the only member of the mallow family (Malvaceae) for which the pods are eaten as a vegetable. The mallow family, it turns out, are “sometimes eaten as pot-herbs.”
A web search came up with just a few mentions. One was a recipe from Australia for okra greens and corn (update, 10/8/2016: website is shuttered). Another was a funny tale from The Serendipitous Chef about using okra leaves in an eggplant-chickpea stew for flavor. And, as it turned out, quite a lot of thickening power: “First to goo. Then to glue. The okra leaves -– in my opinion -– have a stronger thickening effect than the okra pods.”
I stripped the leaves from the stems, and noticed a little bit of slime. After reading about The Serendipitous Chef’s gooey experience, I was a bit apprehensive about what might happen when I cooked the greens. After washing the greens, I drained them. In a large skillet, I heated some oil over high heat, tossed in a few minced cloves of garlic and a chopped dry red chili, let it sizzle for about 30 seconds, then added the drained leaves. With a pair of tongs, I turned the leaves for about a minute, then reduced the heat to medium, and covered the pan to let them finish cooking.
The greens were delicious and tender, and I didn’t notice any slime–perhaps the slime is in the stems. They had a nice flavor, with a subtle hint of okra. The leaves were tender without any of the stringiness that other greens have. If I see them again, I will probably buy a bunch or two.
Next up: the final installment in this trilogy of greens, sweet potato leaves.