This small green pod ( also known as ladies fingers) is best known as a key ingredient in the thick piquant soup called gumbo ( derived from the word gombo, which in West African dialect means okra). Okra's flavour and texture are unique. Its taste falls somewhere between that of an aubergine and asparagus, and, not surprisingly, combines well with other vegetables, particularly tomatoes, peppers, and sweetcorn . Cooked sliced okra exudes a sticky juice that is a combination of complex chemical substances, such as acetylated acidic polysaccharide and galaturonic acid. This juice will thicken any liquid to which it is added, a characteristic that helps to explain okra's long standing use in soups and stews. Not everyone finds this mucilaginous texture pleasing, but cooking the vegetable quickly will reduce the gumminess, allowing okra to be enjoyed on its own as an interesting and nutritious side dish. This unusual vegetable has a lot to offer nutritionally. It's a good source of vitamin C, folate (folic acid) and other B vitamins, as well as magnesium, potassium, and manganese. Okra is high in dietary fibre.

Small, young pods no more than about 3" long, are the most tender; as the vegetable matures, it becomes fibrous and tough. Choose pods that are clean and fresh (overmature ones will look dull and dry), and that snap crisply when broken in half; avoid okra pods that are hard, brownish, or blackened.

Don't wash okra until just before you cook it; moisture will cause the pods to become slimy. Store untrimmed, uncut okra in a paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator for no longer than three or four days.

Wash the okra; if the pods are very fuzzy, rub them in a kitchen towel or with a vegetable brush to remove some of the "fur."

If you are cooking whole okra pods, trim just the barest slice from the stem end and tip, without piercing the internal capsule; prepared this way, the juices won't be released and the okra won't become gummy. When you are cutting okra into slices, however, you can trim the stem end more deeply.

In general, when okra is to be served separately as a vegetable side dish, cook the whole pods rapidly, until al dente or just tender, to minimis e the thickening juices. The same principle applies when you are adding okra to any cooked dish in which you want to retain its crisp, fresh quality: Add the vegetable during the last 10 minutes of cooking time. On the other hand, when okra is to be used in a soup, stew, or casserole that requires long cooking, it should be cut up and allowed to exude its juices.

Do not cook okra in a cast iron or aluminum pot, or the vegetable will darken. The discoloration is harmless, but makes the okra look rather unappetising.