Samui Wining & Dining
Knowing your Onions

Or, in this case, knowing your okra!


Page-16You can blame many things on sailing boats. And one of the most significant of these (boats, that is) was the one that Ferdinand Magellan captained, in 1519 AD. But Christopher Columbus had already paved the way some years before, when he sailed off to find a trade route to Asia, but bumped into America instead. Mind you, a hundred years before this the Portuguese had similarly stumbled across The Canary Islands (named after dogs, not birds, by the way). All of which is really quite remarkable when you realise that a further 700 years or so before even this, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, working in The Library of Alexandria, had already scientifically proven that the Earth was round, not flat.

      Well, there was no satellite-based photography in those days, so it must have taken quite a leap of faith to set off in a sailing ship the size of a three-bedroom house and aim it towards the edge of the hopefully-not-flat Earth. And the subsequent joyous realisation that you didn’t drop off sparked off a completely new craze in the early 16th century. Suddenly all the prosperous nations of Europe were at it. The Portuguese, Spanish, English, Dutch, and French were all racing each other to discover new trade routes and establish new colonies. Plus, of course, to bring back tons of natural

booty that ranged from gold and silver through to wonderful new plants, fruits and vegetables. And, amongst these, was one that’s now generally become known as lady’s finger, gumbo or okra, depending upon what part of the world you come from.

      A tropical plant of the malvaceae (mallows) family and known scientifically as abelmoschus esculentus, it can trace its native roots back to Ethiopia, and a little north of this to the region of the Sudan. And as early as the 13th century, it was reported to have been growing along the Nile River. From Africa, okra travelled to the Middle East and India. It then headed off towards Brazil in 1658, then Dutch Guinea and New Orleans, before eventually extending outwards throughout in the United States, towards the end of the 19th century.

     But it was during its introduction to the southern United States that it made its greatest culinary impact. Okra, brought in by the slaves from Angola, was called ochinggombo; later shortened to ngombo. The Indians of Louisiana discovered okra’s thickening properties, and used it in place of traditionally dubious powders to thicken a regional stew made of vegetables and seafood. Today the name of this vegetable in these regions is still known as ‘gumbo’. But so is the thick and rich-flavoured stew that it enhances. Gumbo has become world-renowned, and is now one of the best-known dishes to represent the deep south of the United States.

     In Louisiana, it’s called okra. In England, it’s lady’s fingers. In the Caribbean, it’s known as kallaloo. Strictly speaking, it’s a fruit, as it contains seeds, but it’s universally eaten as a vegetable. The primary characteristic of this attractive little ‘fruit’ is inevitably that it is ‘mucilaginous’. This comes from the Latin noun mucus, which unilaterally translates as ‘phlegm’. Okra contains two obscure mild acids that are released when the fruit is cut open and these form a glutinous sap. Incidentally, okra can also be dried and ground into a powder that is used as a thickening agent for soups and sauces.

      Okra has quite a striking appearance. The slightly curved pods come to a point at one end, while the stem-end has a neatly-fitted conical cap. Some varieties are ribbed on the outside, while others are smooth and slightly fuzzy. Its colour can vary from light to dark green, with some types even heading towards a reddish hue. The pods are filled with soft edible seeds that can range in colour from beige to a dusky pink. The fruits grow from between two inches to eight inches in length, with the smaller sizes being the most tender (the larger ones tend to be woody and tough). The flavour is actually very pleasant (despite the mucus!) being somewhere between eggplant and asparagus. And, when cooked, the texture is soft and the taste delicate, with the seeds adding a nutty dimension to the mix.

      Over the last few decades, okra has become something of a dietary star. In today’s health-conscious climate, everyone’s on the lookout for solid sources of natural nourishment, and this is one more example of Nature’s kindness. Okra has become renowned for its high vitamin C, vitamin K and also substantial folic acid content. It’s also rich in natural fibre, which helps digestion and settles the bowels, balances blood sugar levels, and helps to absorb excess sugars, thus keeping diabetes at bay. It contains iron, which helps to form haemoglobin within the blood and offsets anaemia. And it’s got a good level of vitamin K, which is necessary for effective blood coagulation. Furthermore, in today’s pacey and stress-filled life (living on Samui excepted!) a regular intake of okra will help to allay those niggling stomach ulcers. The bacteria heliobacter pylori is a pre-requisite for such ulcers, and okra contains glycosylated substrates which have been proven to prevent this bacterium from attacking the lining of the stomach.

         At the close of the 19th century, the English grammarian and lexicographer, C. T. Onions, was the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. And over the next decade or so his name became synonymous with ‘being in the know’. In those days anyone having an insight into, or an profound understanding of, not just words and their meaning, but the bigger picture in general, was deemed to ‘know his Onions’. And now, thanks to the high-Onion content of Samui Wining & Dining, when it comes to talking about okra, you can tell everyone that you really ‘know your onions’! t


Rob De We


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