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Okra - the long history of this 'new' vegetable on our plates

Okra is a rising star within gastronomy, although in any list of foods that are an acquired taste, okra would rank near the top.

An odd-looking and unusual-tasting pod with more than one potential textural issue, okra never has caught on hereabouts the way it has in southern Asia, west Africa and the American South. Until now.

“We sell it all the time,” said Tom Pitleck, produce manager at the Cub Foods in northeast Minneapolis. “It seems like a lot more local farmers are growing it, and I think a lot of foodies are into it.” That focus on food certainly prompted perhaps the area’s foremost purveyor of fresh produce, Untiedt’s Vegetable Market, to grow and sell okra.

“We had it 25, 30 years ago,” said market owner Jerry Untiedt, “and it kind of lost interest because there was not a huge demand. We started back this year as a creative addition to our CSA [community-supported agriculture] program, always trying to broaden the palate.”

It’s also available at eight Untiedt’s stands and has proliferated the past couple of years at other fresh-food meccas such as the Minneapolis Farmers Market and the Hmongtown Marketplace — and even at upscale stores such as Jerry’s Foods in Edina.

Several factors are likely in play: an influx of newcomers from the aforementioned regions where okra has been a staple; an uptick in ethnic, soul-food and barbecue restaurants serving it; and widespread interest in all manner of once-exotic foods.

It’s also a lot easier to grow here than 25 years ago, when this son of the South (where folks often refer to this veggie as “ok-ree” in the same way some Upper Midwesterners say “rutaba-gee”) found that there were some summers when it simply wouldn’t ripen. Besides climate change, horticultural advances have made a difference.


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