Unusual Greens, Part 2 – What One Farmer Called “Okra Leaves” (But That Aren’t Okra)

Photo of jute leaves (Colichortus olitorius)(Updated 10/8/16: fixed broken links)

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.


  1. I just love love love okra.

    And I really like the one and only farmer at the SF Ferry plaza FM who sells it– have you bought okra from Short Night?

    perhaps if I think of it O will ask about the greens. thanks for the hint!

  2. Shuna,
    I haven’t tried Short Night’s okra, and have not see any okra at the farmers’ markets yet (maybe this week!). I have not used much okra in my kitchen, but this year I will change that.

  3. I am trying to grow okra for the first time and just got my first small bunch of okra pods. I’m going to try the leaves – thanks for testing it out.

  4. I just bought the exact same thing you have a picture of at a local Millbrae, CA Farmer’s Market. They also told me it was “okra leaves” and that I could use them in soup. I also tasted these “okra leaves” and fresh it’s extremely tender and almost flavorless. The only problem is that after looking it up on the web, these do no look anything like the okra leaves I see pictured on other sites. Thank goodness you show a picture of what you are talking about, or I was wondering if they had sold me some kind of weed and laughed at me for being so ignorant!

    I wonder if this is something else? I will keep looking to see if I can learn more.

  5. These pods, that turned out to be Okra, appear from time to time at vegetable markets I frequent in Israel. I didn’t know what they were, but noticed that they contain a lot of oil with a high viscosity that could be ideal to make biodiesel. I asked an Israeli chef what the funny pods were and he said, “oh we call it snot.” That made me decide I for sure won’t grow them if it’s not to make fuel.

    The pods might be too expensive for fuel, though, at about 10 shekels per kg = close to US$3.0

  6. Hey Marc,
    I wanted to let you know that I learned something this summer at my farmer’s market.

    Many immigrants call jute leaves “okra leaves” because they’re slimy and a lot like okra when you cook them.

    But they’re often not actually the leaves of an okra plant.

    (Still, jute’s pretty cool, too…it makes burlap!)

    Just thought I’d let you know. And frankly, unless you speak the grower’s language, even with an okra pod in your hand, you might not be able to clearly ask, “Does this thing grow on it, or does it taste and cook like this thing?”

    Not a huge deal culinarily, but just a little piece of trivia.

  7. I have had some success in setting up a Vegetable garden on my terrace. We have had a good crop of tomatoes. My mother insisted that we grow okra, being not fond of the vegetable I was bit hesistant but today I learnt that the leaves have their own uses and can be used as greens. I am always looking for a thickner in soups and it seems you can get an ersatz coffee off the leaves and the pods!

  8. These are not okra leaves. I don't know what they are but I've got loads of okra in my garden and the leaves are a little more like large, dark green, tough marijuana leaves in shape. Not exactly but nothing like what you show here!

  9. beautdogs — You're right. I took a look at some photos of okra and they are significantly different. I'm guessing that there was a translation problem, as the people I bought them from speak English as a second language (they immigrated from Laos in the 1970s, I think). I'll check back with them at a future market.

  10. My sense is that the leaves in the picture are what Arabs refer to as "melokhia". It is very common in Egyptian and Sudanese cuisine.

    It is very slimy, hence the comparison to okra. I've only had it in frozen-and-shredded form, and dry form.

    I googled pictures of melokhia and they look similar to what you have here.

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