Abelmoschus esculentus: OKRA, Gombo, Kalalou

Basics:  Plant with coco fiber pot into soil when all danger of frost has passed, keeping soil levels and moisture even.  Plant 18-24″ apart in full sun.  Feed or side-dress throughout the season, water evenly, and trim off old leaves as pods form.  Top the stems early to encourage side-growth.  50-65 days.  Harvest pods when 2-3″ or they will be woody and inedible.

Okra, burgundy-- newly formed pod and flower buds-- harvest pod when 2-3 inches for best flavor.

Okra, burgundy– newly formed pod and flower buds– harvest pod when 2-3 inches for best flavor.

Delicious cooked, sweet and tender sliced raw and served with a sprinkle of salt.  The infamous mucilaginous quality is vastly improved by serving with some acidic component such as vinegar, citrus, or tomato. Popular pickled, and as a deep fried side-dish in the American South.

The Haitian Kreyol word for Okra is gombo or kalalou, and it is often the ingredient (as well as amaranth or taro leaves) in the iconic Caribbean soup, Calalou (or Callaloo).  See links for recipes at the bottom of this page.

Food historian Michael Twitty’s thorough essay on okra’s complex journey through Africa to the New World, and a recipe for okra soup, is a good background. Click here for William Woys Weaver’s excellent run-down of the history of okra and its many uses, as well as growing information.


Transplant starts after danger of frost has passed and soil is warm. Be very cautious not to disturb the roots as they are very sensitive to transplanting. Be sure to gently tear apart the coco fiber pot at the bottom and sides, and plant together with root ball if you chose.

Plant 1-2 feet apart. Water evenly until established- once established they are drought tolerant but will do better with regular watering. Trim leaves as fruits develop, and harvest the pods when they are 2-3 inches. Longer than that and they will be woody and inedible. The shorter, the more tender, so keep an eye out– they grow quickly! Rich , loose, well drained soil is best. Too much nitrogen will encourage more foliage and less okra. It is best to plant in areas where nitrogen-fixing legumes had been planted in the previous season, and avoid adding more nitrogen to the soil.

Okra burgundy flower

OKRA RECIPES from HAITI and Beyond 

Just one of many versions of the Caribbean classic Calalou, Haitian style– a type of gumbo that has origins in Africa. In different Haitian recipes, you can make Kalalou/Calalou with amaranth leaves, water cress, or taro leaves, but it is often made with okra.  Another integral ingredient is crab, which is also a delicacy found in the Pacific Northwest.

Chicken with black Haitian mushrooms and okra (kalalou).  English version follows the French.  Oregonians can substitute black chanterelles (black trumpet mushrooms) or matsutake mushrooms for the djon-djon mushrooms.

Beef with Okra-Viand Bef ak Kalalou – Boeuf avec Gombo. A special ingredient listed in this recipe is “pikliz,” a Haitian slaw/sauerkraut made with Scotch Bonnet peppers. See the Jamaican Scotch Bonnet pepper page to learn all about pikliz, and how easy it is to make!

Tom-tom ak kalalou gombo (Breadfruit with okra). “Rememer, use your fingers and gulp away!”  In the Pacific Northwest, you can usually find breadfruit and more okra at local Asian markets.

Salted cod, chestnuts, and okra!

A unique history of gumbo and okra in Louisiana— okra was brought to the New World from Africa during the slave trade, and plays a big role in the food traditions and cultural histories of the deep South, especially where Francophone settlers and slavers colonized what is now Louisiana, with the enslaved Africans who introduced okra cookery. A classic Cajun country gumbo recipe from Southeast Louisiana is included in this link.

Okra was also distributed throughout Southeast Asia during what some call the Monsoon Exchange (from about 3,000 years ago) and became a classic component of many Indian and South Asian recipes:  Vegetarian okra (or bhindi) recipes.

And, for good measure, okra has been used for centuries in folk medicine. A short article on nutrition benefits of okra in Time magazine, and the Snopes rundown of the old folk remedy of soaking okra (or just the seeds) in a glass of water overnight. Nutrition facts of boiled, unsalted okra.

Size limit for tastiest okra— any larger and it will be woody and inedible:

length limit for tender okra.

length limit for tender okra.

If you enjoy playing with your food, here’s a lovely project for children and adults:  okra stamp patterns– with thanks to volunteer Mary Unruh for sending this our way.


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