The Whole Okra
A Seed to Stem Celebration
By Chris Smith
2020 James Beard Award Winner
With recipes for gumbos and stews, plus okra pickles, tofu, marshmallow, paper, and more
“A love song long overdue. It is anything and everything you wanted to know about this hallmark ingredient.”—Michael W. Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene
Chris Smith’s first encounter with okra was of the worst kind: slimy fried okra at a greasy-spoon diner. Despite that dismal introduction, Smith developed a fascination with okra, and as he researched the plant and began to experiment with it in his own kitchen, he discovered an amazing range of delicious ways to cook and eat it, along with ingenious and surprising ways to process the plant from tip-to-tail: pods, leaves, flowers, seeds, and stalks. Smith talked okra with chefs, food historians, university researchers, farmers, homesteaders, and gardeners. The summation of his experimentation and research comes together in The Whole Okra, a lighthearted but information-rich collection of okra history, lore, recipes, craft projects, growing advice, and more.
The Whole Okra includes classic recipes such as fried okra pods as well as unexpected delights including okra seed pancakes and okra flower vodka. Some of the South’s best-known chefs shared okra recipes with Smith: Okra Soup by culinary historian Michael Twitty, Limpin’ Susan by chef BJ Dennis, Bhindi Masala by chef Meherwan Irani, and Okra Fries by chef Vivian Howard.
Okra has practical uses beyond the edible, and Smith also researched the history of okra as a fiber crop for making paper and the uses of okra mucilage (slime) as a preservative, a hydrating face mask, and a primary ingredient in herbalist Katrina Blair’s recipe for Okra Marshmallow Delight.
The Whole Okra is foremost a foodie’s book, but Smith also provides practical tips and techniques for home and market gardeners. He gives directions for saving seed for replanting, for a breeding project, or for a stockpile of seed for making okra oil, okra flour, okra tempeh, and more. Smith has grown over 75 varieties of okra, and he describes the nuanced differences in flavor, texture, and color; the best-tasting varieties; and his personal favorites. Smith’s wry humor and seed-to-stem enthusiasm for his subject infuse every chapter with just the right mix of fabulous recipes and culinary tips, unique projects, and fun facts about this vagabond vegetable with enormous potential.
“If you are an okra lover, this book is an affirmation, filled with interesting stories and great ideas for using pods, flowers, and more. If you are not yet an okra lover, Chris Smith’s enthusiasm may well convert you.”—Sandor Ellix Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation
Reviews and Praise
"A cultural, horticultural, and culinary plunge into one of the world’s slimiest foods . . . Foodies, gardeners, and those who wish to push their own taste buds are encouraged to embrace the anthropomorphizing of okra and take a deep dive into its many possibilities."
“The volume you hold in your hands is a love song long overdue. It is anything and everything you wanted to know about this hallmark ingredient. . . . I leave you in the capable hands of Chris Smith, your leader on a journey through the world of The Whole Okra.”—Michael W. Twitty, author of the James Beard Award–winning book The Cooking Gene
“Okra is a contentious vegetable—folks love it or hate it. No one is ambivalent. Well, I am an okra lover, an okra apostle, an okra evangelist—and Chris Smith is my absolute hero. He has written the definitive book on okra. The Whole Okra is packed with tips, techniques, gardening advice, and recipes. It’s an absolute must-have for okra devotees.”—Virginia Willis, James Beard Award–winning cookbook author and chef
“Chris Smith takes a deep, deep dive into American okra culture, and the result is this amazing encyclopedia of our most misunderstood vegetable. The Whole Okra is a long-anticipated contribution to the foodways of the American South.”—Sean Brock, James Beard Award–winning chef and author
“Much maligned, okra is among the most underrated vegetables. Okra is delicious, versatile, plentiful, and worthy of the attention it gets in The Whole Okra. If you are an okra lover, this book is an affirmation, filled with interesting stories and great ideas for using pods, flowers, and more. If you are not yet an okra lover, Chris Smith’s enthusiasm may well convert you.”—Sandor Ellix Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation
“Okra has found its champion in Chris Smith as he covers every imaginable use for okra flowers, pods, and stems. Even longtime okra advocates will find plenty of new information here, from growing okra seedlings as microgreens to fermenting perfect pods. With humor and unflagging optimism for his subject, Smith melds meticulous research with firsthand experience working with dozens of varieties of okra. The Whole Okra is a celebration for okra fans, and may lead to the conversion of at least a few okra haters.”—Barbara Pleasant, award-winning author of Homegrown Pantry
“Gardeners and chefs are always looking for resources to inspire creative expression, especially when it comes to bumper crops. Chris Smith has put together a witty and well-written book about okra with historical context and creative uses for one of the South’s favorite and most debated exports. Even okra haters will find a recipe or concept in The Whole Okra that will bring them into the fold.”—Ian Boden, founding chef and owner, The Shack
“Chris Smith’s The Whole Okra is a delight for this confirmed okra lover. The beautiful photos and tempting okra recipes by renowned southern chefs call out to adventurous cooks and gardeners everywhere to try this underappreciated superfood. In this era of climate change, it is exciting to learn about okra’s many unique uses as high-protein flour, strong fiber, handcrafted paper, and high-quality oil.”—Ira Wallace, gardening expert, author of The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast
“Okra has been discovered among the offerings in ancient Greek tombs, uncontestable evidence that this fascinating and well-travelled food plant has a rich history yet to be fully written. Meanwhile there is no need to wait for archaeology to piece it all together. In The Whole Okra, Chris Smith has given us an excellent introduction to all you need to know about okra, from hands-on garden tips to the many unusual ways to cook it—not to mention one of the best guides available to the multitude of varieties to choose from.”—William Woys Weaver, food historian; author of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening
“The Whole Okra honors the humble yet versatile virtues of okra, and Chris Smith’s comical, creative style of writing drew me in from the very beginning. His descriptions of okra’s infinite potential will inspire readers to dive deep into the heart and soul of what is possible in the garden and in the kitchen. The simple okra plant guides us into realms of diversity and connectivity and perhaps even offers us a glimpse into the meaning of life.”—Katrina Blair, author of The Wild Wisdom of Weeds
“Reader friendly, comprehensive, and massively informed, Chris Smith’s The Whole Okra champions this versatile green vegetable in the face of those who revile its spines and slime. Part survey of varieties, part multicultural cookbook of historic okra preparations, Smith’s narrative is a personal tour of this global plant. He explains why we should cherish open-pollinated heirloom varieties, why we should look beyond the pods to the flowers, seeds, and leaves for culinary gratification, and why we should grow okra if time and property permit. This is the first book to consult if you want to know about okra, its history, its cultivation, and its culinary applications.”—David S. Shields, Carolina Distinguished Professor, University of South Carolina
“OMG. Who’d a thought brilliant and marvelous would be used to describe a book about this most unlikely topic? No garden/foodie geek will be able to put down this insightful, witty, humorous masterpiece.”—Felder Rushing, host of NPR’s The Gestalt Gardener; author of Slow Gardening
“I was skeptical—a whole book on okra? Turns out many others are skeptical, too, and Chris Smith wants to set the record straight, which he does in an entertaining and informative way. You can grow okra as easily as tomatoes, pests are few, and it has good vigor. Eat the pods, seeds, and leaves; okra tastes terrific in a raw salad, too. This unexpected combination of a Brit living in Carolina and writing about okra is a great read. The Whole Okra will make you want to start growing and eating okra today.”—Charles Dowding, no dig gardening expert; creator of the Charles Dowding No Dig website