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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Veggie of the Mother Continent

What do potatoes, tomatoes, and chile peppers have in common? They are all crops native to the Americas that have changed world cuisine. One cannot even imagine Italian food without tomatoes, English cooking without potatoes or Indian food without chile.

But here's a triumvirate you probably don't think about: okra, tamarind and coffee - crop plants that originated from Africa, that have changed much of world cuisine.

Okra tempura as part of the "dry" sinigang

Americans tend to ascribe okra to Southern cooking - as it was the import along with African slaves to the South. Beyond gumbo and fried okra, though, the fruit doesn't figure heavily into North American cooking. I have encountered Yankees who don't even think that okra is a real word. What surprises me is that it didn't seem to transfer into Mexican cooking, despite the proximity. But the African influence certainly shines in Brazilian cooking.

Okra is also quite popular in Filipino cooking. Without a direct African immigration, I was puzzled how the okra got there. The lack of okra in Mexican cooking added to the puzzle, as the close history of two countries as colonies of Spain may have explained things. So, where else is okra a major culinary ingredient? Cuisines of Egypt, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia - it appears that okra traveled along the path of Arabic explorers along Southeast Asia.

1 comment:

  1. I first encountered okra in Malaysia; I liked it immediately. But it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that "lady-fingers" (Pl Count) and "okra" (Sg Mass) were both the same thing: kacang-kacangan. I never heard or saw it called "okra" in Malaysia.