By Heidi Lewis
A broom is an important tool when making gumbo. Tune your kitchen radio to WWOZ New Orleans, crank it up, and dance with your broom. Use it for a washtub bass or air guitar, or to sweep the metaphorical cobwebs from your thoughts and leftovers into the gumbo. Gumbo is the Louisiana chefs’ “sweep up the kitchen” dish—toss everything into the pot! It’s an uplifting experience. Of course, what makes it gumbo—is the okra.
Gumbo is the quintessential American melting-pot dish. In Mark Huntsman’s article The History of Gumbo, he traces its influences: “as early as 1885 there were writers who recognized gumbo as the culinary legacy of the African-American community. Although the French contributed the concept of the roux, and the Choctaw invented filé powder, the modern soup is overwhelmingly West African in character.” Huntsman points out gumbo’s similarity to soups in Senegal in flavor and name. “The name of the soup itself is derived from the Bantu words for the okra contained within…”
Okra is the pod of the plant, a relative to cotton and cocoa, which has a pretty, hibiscus-type flower. Some folks may find okra to be slimy, but that is in fact its strength—and it needn’t be prepared that way. The pods, when cut, exude a mucilaginous juice that is used to thicken gumbo. Okra is a tropical plant and comes to the U.S. via Africa and the Caribbean, but it’s known in India as well. Recipes from those countries have techniques for “dry frying” okra, which is essentially tossing the okra in flour or meal. In Indian Bhindi Kurkure, okra is tossed in chickpea flour; in Texas they use cornmeal. In gumbo or on the side, okra is a great companion for your next fais dodo.
Preparation: Cut okra into slices, discarding the stems. If frying, wash and air-dry okra. One tip is to warm them in the oven to ensure dryness.
Storage: Place okra in a paper bag or paper towel inside a perforated plastic bag. Do not let them get moist. Use within three days.