Eat This Now: Okra

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In the south, it’s available year-round, but for the rest of us, summer is a great time to take advantage of fresh okra. While it looks like a ridged pepper, okra belongs to the same family as hibiscus and cotton, and likely came to the U.S. from Africa more than three centuries ago.

The food: Okra is appealing for its tender fruit and leaves, but perhaps its most unusual feature is the gummy, gelatinous substance released from its pods when cooked. That sticky agent makes it a popular ingredient in gumbos and soups where it acts as a thickener, but if it’s not to your liking, some cooks recommend quick-frying sliced okra in a saute pan with some cornmeal.

The trend: Packed with fibers that can help to lower cholesterol, okra also contains nearly 10% of daily recommended levels of vitamin B6 and folic acid. And because it is relatively simple to grow in warm climates, okra is becoming popular in north and south China. “It was the preferred vegetable for the Olympic athletes of the Beijing Olympic Games,” says Kantha Shelke, a food scientist at Corvus Blue LLC and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). And okra may have some other effects to thank for that. “Because of its physiological effects, it has gained some interesting names including ‘green panax’ in Japan and ‘plant viagra’ in the USA,” she says. “The polysaccharides in okra are thought to open up the arteries in a similar way to Viagra.”

While okra is a popular staple in some international cuisines, Americans are still warming up to the vegetable. According to Shelke, who studies food trends, okra chips are gaining popularity in the appetizer menus of Indian and vegetarian restaurants. And at the New York City Greenmarket, Eugena Yoo of Lani’s Farm in Bordentown, New Jersey says immigrant communities gravitate toward the  in-season vegetable, since they tend to recognize it and are aware of its health benefits.

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Alexandra Sifferlin

The nutrients: One cup of okra is only 33 calories and contains a number of vitamins and mineral salts, including calcium. Okra seeds and pulp are high in the antioxidants catechin, epicatechin, procyanidin B1 and B2, quercetin and rutin that can fight the damage caused to cells by stress and other environmental factors. “The fruit and the young leaves of the plant have a wide range of medicinal values and have been used historically to treat many diseases,” says Shelke. Studies have linked some of okra’s carbohydrates to a range of physiologic effects, including:

  • Antidiabetic properties: the viscosity of okra’s carbohydrates helps to slow the uptake of sugar into the blood, reducing the glycemic load of glucose in the blood that can disrupt the body’s ability to properly process the sugars, and lead to diabetes.
  • Controlling lipid levels: The soluble fibers in the vegetable, in the form of pectins, can help to lower cholesterol levels by as much as 10%, according to some animal studies.
  • Protecting brain neurons: “Okra is popularly consumed by young students in the Middle East, Far East and South East Asia, where people believe that okra is good for brain function,” says Shelke.

The preparation: Quick-fry okra in a skillet–and not for too long. Without the slimy gel, the vegetable is satisfyingly crunchy. Try this recipe for Sautéed Tomatoes, Sausage, and Okra from our TIME Inc. family brand, Real Simple.

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The taste: Some have described the boiled, gummy version of okra as similar to zucchini or eggplant, with more bitterness. When fried, it takes on the crunchiness of green beans.

The takeaway: Okra will likely be on many restaurant menus this summer — in boiled, fried or even pickled form. Chances are, you’ll never even notice the gummy slime if it’s served in curries, or with rice or tomatoes, so give it a try.