Onion

The onion (Allium cepa L., from Latin cepa “onion”), the most widely cultivated vegetable of the genus Allium. Its close relatives include the garlic, shallot, leek, chive and Chinese onion. The word onion comes from the Latin word ‘unio’ meaning unity, because it grows as a single bulb.

IMG_1595.JPG

The onion is most frequently a biennial or a perennial plant but is usually treated as an annual and harvested in its first growing season. Onions are cultivated and used around the world. As a food item, they are usually served cooked, as a vegetable or part of a prepared savoury dish, but can also be eaten raw or used to make pickles or chutneys.

The onion plant has a fan of hollow green leaves and its bulb at the base of the plant begins to swell when a certain day-length is reached. The bulbs are composed of shortened, compressed, underground stems surrounded by fleshy modified scale (leaves) that envelop a central bud at the tip of the stem. In the autumn (or in spring, in the case of overwintering onions), the foliage dies down and the outer layers of the bulb become dry and brittle. The crop is harvested and dried and the onions are ready for use or storage.

IMG_2047.jpg

The geographic origin of the onion is uncertain because the wild onion is extinct and ancient records of using onions span all over Asia. The first cultivated onions are the subject of much debate, but the two regions that many archaeologists, botanists, and food historians point to are central Asia or Persia. They were probably almost simultaneously domesticated by peoples all over the globe, as there are species of the onion found the world over. Food uses of onions date back thousands of years in China, Egypt and Persia. Traces of onions recovered from Bronze Age settlements in China suggest onions were used as far back as 5000 BC, not only for their flavour, but the bulb’s durability in storage and transport. Ancient Egyptians revered the onion bulb, viewing its spherical shape and concentric rings as symbols of eternal life. Onions were used in Egyptian burials, as evidenced by onion traces found in the eye sockets of Ramessess IV. The fourth book of the Hebrew Bible composed around the 5th century BC mentions onions when recounting scarce foodstuffs available: 11:5 — We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. In the 6th century BCE, the Charake Samhita, one of the primary works in the Ayurvedic tradition, documents the onion’s use as a medicinal plant, a ‘diuretic, good for digestion, the heart, the eyes, and the joints’. Pliny the Elder wrote about the use of onions and cabbage in Pompeii. He documented Roman beliefs about the onion’s ability to improve ocular ailments, aid in sleep, and heal everything from oral sores and toothaches to dog bites, lumbago and dysentery. Archaeologists unearthing Pompeii long after its 79 CE volcanic burial have found gardens resembling those in Pliny’s detailed narratives where the onions would have been grown. Onions were taken to North America by the first European settlers only to discover the plant readily available, and in wide use in Native American cooking. According to diaries kept by certain of the first English colonists, the bulb onion was one of the first crops planted by the Pilgrims.

Shallots are a type of onion, but  was formerly classified as a separate species, A. ascalonicum. Like garlic, shallots are formed in clusters of offsets with a head composed of multiple cloves. The skin colour of shallots can vary from golden brown to gray to rose red, and their off-white flesh is usually tinged with green or magenta. You can use shallots in the place of onions when cooking, but they do make smaller harvests.

In the gardening world, we are used to three different colours of onions. We grow the brown/yellow/golden, the red/purple and then the white, which I must admit, I have never tried. Across the world the brown is often used in everyday cooking, the red is often served raw as it is sweeter, and the white are often used in Mexican styled cuisine as they are very sweet once sautéed.

IMG_1604.jpg

Here are some varieties to try:

Brown: Radar (one of my favourites), Alisa Craig, Stuttgarter, Centurion, Hercules, Sturon, Hytech

Red: Red Baron, Electric (another favourite)

White: Snowball

Shallot: Griselle (good), Jermor, Bistro, Golden Gourmet, Picasso, Mikor, Yellow Moon, Vigarmor

Onions are best cultivated in fertile soils that are well-drained. Sandy loams are good as they are low in sulphur, while clayey soils usually have a high sulphur content and produce pungent bulbs. Onions require a high level of nutrients in the soil. Phosphorous is often present in sufficient quantities, but may be applied before planting because of its low level of availability in cold soils. Nitrogen and potash can be applied at regular intervals during the growing season, the last application of nitrogen being at least four weeks before harvesting. Or try planting them in your crop rotation after the runner beans. Bulbing onions are day-length sensitive; their bulbs begin growing only after the number of daylight hours has surpassed some minimal quantity. Most traditional European onions produce bulbs only after 14 hours or more of daylight. Southern European and North African varieties are often known as “intermediate-day” types, requiring only 12–13 hours of daylight to stimulate bulb formation. “Short-day” onions, which have been developed in more recent times, are planted in mild-winter areas in the autumn and form bulbs in the early spring, and require only 11–12 hours of daylight to stimulate bulb formation. Onions are a cool-weather crop. Hot temperatures or other stressful conditions cause them to bolt, meaning that a flower stem begins to grow.

IMG_2481.jpg

Onions may be grown from seeds or from sets. We often use sets (I’ve tried shallot seeds and grown a total of two miniature shallots that were the size of my pinkie’s fingernail…) Onion seeds are short-lived and fresh seeds germinate better. The seeds are sown thinly in shallow drills, thinning the plants in stages. In suitable climates, certain cultivars can be sown in late summer and autumn to overwinter in the ground and produce early crops the following year. Onion sets are produced by sowing seed thickly in early summer in poor soil and the small bulbs produced are harvested in the autumn. These bulbs are planted the following spring and grow into mature bulbs later in the year. Certain cultivars are used for this purpose and these may not have such good storage characteristics as those grown directly from seed.

If growing from seed, sow 1cm (½in) deep in rows 20cm (8in) apart from late February through to early April. Thin by removing weaker seedlings, first to 5cm (2in) apart and then later to 10cm (4in) apart. Plant spring sets March – April and harvest August – September. Plant winter sets in September and harvest May – June. Plant onion sets 10cm (4in) apart in rows 30cm (12in) apart. Gently push the sets into soft, well-worked soil so that the tip is just showing, and firm the soil around them.

IMG_1594.JPG

Routine care during the growing season involves keeping the rows free of competing weeds, especially when the plants are young. The plants are shallow-rooted and do not need a great deal of water when established. Bulbing usually takes place after 12 to 18 weeks. The bulbs can be gathered when needed to eat fresh, but if they will be kept in storage, they should be harvested after the leaves have died back naturally. In dry weather, they can be left on the surface of the soil for a few days to dry out properly, then they can be placed in nets, roped into strings, or laid in layers in shallow boxes. They should be stored in a well-ventilated, cool place such as a shed.

Freshly cut onions often cause a stinging sensation in the eyes of people nearby, and often uncontrollable tears. This is caused by the release of a volatile gas, syn-propanethial-S-oxide, which stimulates nerves in the eye creating a stinging sensation. This gas is produced by a chain of reactions which serve as a defence mechanism. Chopping an onion causes damage to cells which releases enzymes called alliinases, generating sulfenic acids. Lacrimal glands produce tears to dilute and flush out the irritant.

Onions are rich in carbohydrates, sugar, soluble and insoluble fiber, sodium. They are a very good source of vitamin C and so good for building your immunity. They are also a good source of enzyme-activating manganese and molybdenum as well as heart-healthy vitamin B6, fiber, folate, and potassium. Onions are surprisingly high in flavenoids, one of the top ten vegetables with Quercetin content. If you want to retain the flavonoid, peel off only the outer dry skin as the outer layers are more concentrated with flavenoids. Onions have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties and help in problems like rheumatoid arthritis or allergic airway inflammation. Studies show that onions help balance blood sugar levels. Onions also have anti bacterial properties. There are many stories and folklore. It is supposed to have saved families from plague and other infections. The anti bacterial effects of the onions act against the streptococcus mutants that cause various dental cavities and gum diseases. Studies suggest that the consumption of onions enhances the anti clotting capacity of blood. Onions have been known to increase bone density, reducing the risk of fractures. The sulphur content in onions is excellent for the connective tissues as well.

Natural treatments that use onion:

-Onions are also used in the treatment of piles or haemorrhoids. The juice of 30g of onion mixed with water and sugar is administered to the patient twice a day.

-In alopecia (hair loss), a topical application of onion juice has been said to initiate the re-growth of hair.

Cough, cold and asthma is often treated with a serving of onions, as it is known to decrease bronchial spasms. Onion juice mixed with honey helps cure bronchitis and influenza.

-Onions are also known to stimulate the growth of good bacteria while suppressing the growth of harmful bacteria in the colon, reducing the risk of colon cancer.

-The juice of Tulsi leaves (holy basil) with equal quantities of lemon juice and onion extract applied on the skin takes care of many skin diseases.

-A slice of cut onion rubbed over acne is supposed to clear up the skin quickly by taking off the bacterial infections.

-Naturopaths recommend eating onion and jaggery to increase body weight.

-Eating one raw onion a day reduces cholesterol in the blood.

-A remedy for warts is the application of the juice of one finely chopped onion sprinkled with salt and left for a few hours. This needs to be repeated 3 to 4 times a day until the wart dries up.

-The cure for cholera in Indian households is one onion pounded with 7 black peppers. It lessens vomiting and diarrhoea immediately. A little sugar could be added to the mixture to increase its effectiveness.

-A tea made of onions boiled in water, cooled, strained, and given to patients suffering from urinary infections gives immediate relief.

-Slice an onion and rub it over the sting of a bee, wasp or a mosquito to ease the discomfort.

-In the treatment for chicken pox, Indian women would serve the afflicted person a bowl of curd rice with chopped onions.

 

Onions can be added to anything. They are the base of all sauces, add flavour to a salad when served raw, and are just fundamental in the kitchen for pizza toppings, curries, stir fries, pies…

Here are some wonderful recipes using onions:

Pasta salad with fried onions and tomatoes : Autumn planting … and a recipe!

IMG_6753

Recipe: Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

IMG_6459

Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

IMG_6933

 

And lots more – just type onion into the search bar on the home page. 

 

Pumpkin Coconut Curry

IMG_7203

Pumpkin Coconut Curry

(Serves 6)

-1/2 large pumpkin -Olive oil, for greasing -Coconut oil, for frying -1 onion, finely sliced -1 tbsp mustard seeds -1tbsp nigella seeds -1tsp coriander seeds -Pinch of curry leaves -1tsp ground coriander -1tsp ground turmeric -1 1/4tsp ground garam masala -1/2tsp ground cumin -1 can of coconut milk -Rice, naan, popadoms, chapatis tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber raita etc. for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
  2. Cut the pumpkin into segments. Place on a baking tray and grease with olive oil. Roast in the oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked. When ready, remove the pumpkin from the oven and using a knife and fork, cut the segments into chunky cubes.
  3. Heat the coconut oil in a large frying pan. Add the onion and fry until starting to turn golden brown. Add the mustard, nigella and coriander seeds, followed by the curry leaves. Mix together and reduce the heat to a simmer. Leave for a few minutes to blend.
  4. Add the ground spices with the garlic. Stir well. Leave for a few more minutes.
  5. Add the pumpkin and mix in well together. Leave for a couple of minutes before stirring in the coconut milk. Combine the contents of the pan and leave to simmer for a few more minutes.
  6. Remove from the heat and serve with rice, a flatbread, salad etc. Store left-overs in the fridge or freezer in containers.

IMG_7197.jpg

IMG_7201
Pumpkin curry with rice, chopped tomatoes, lettuce and naan bread – recipe link below…

IMG_7198

Recipes for other Indian curries: Curried Potatoes and Bread maker Naan BreadAubergine curry, OkraCourgettes and carrot dal, Cucumbers raita and matte paneer curry…

What to do with left over pumpkin?

Tree Cabbage

I planted a couple of years ago seeds from the Real Seed Company called Tree Cabbage, a perennial plant.

IMG_6136.JPG

This is what they say on their website: http://www.realseeds.co.uk/cabbage.html

‘This unusual Spanish heirloom has absolutely enormous leaves – and it looks like a Kale rather than a cabbage; it makes no head, just a tall stalk with  a loose head on top. You simply take the huge leaves a few at a time to eat all year round. You can even keep it going for two years or more! Just cut it back when it tries to flower – it makes new growth, ideal for fresh cabbage in spring during the ‘hungry gap’. You can use it as cooked greens just as normal. But Tree Cabbage like this is also a key ingredient in the classic Spanish dish ‘Caldo Gallego’ – which is a delicious leaf, bean, and meat stew. Grows like cabbage, harvested like a kale . Very, very rare. Can be a short-lived perennial vegetable if the flowers are removed as they form.’

IMG_6134.jpg

This grew really well for us in our dry sandy soil. Great germination and surviving results. It is harvestable throughout the hungry gap, just what you need in England when you might struggle to keep your greens going. It tastes just like kale.

But even better, the poultry love it. We pick a bunch of it every chance we get to go the the garden and drop it off in their run and they completely destroy it within minutes. Very nutritious for them!

Every time you pick the leaves, more grow. One or two plants could easily feed a family – we’ve got goodness knows how many because I went crazy with sowing them, thinking none would germinate. But that means we have a great supply for our poultry throughout the cold season when there is little grass for them to munch in their run.

IMG_6139.jpg

When the plants started flowering and going to seed, I thought that meant that they were over. Instead, they made more leaves and have kept on going this year.

We have been harvesting the seeds and using it as a replacement for mustard seeds (Mustard) in curries and other dishes as it from the same family, Brassica.

They are winter cold hardy, pulling through the frosts without any protection.

They might be exhausted this season, or they might survive for another harvest. Anyway, they are a good investment.

If you are a little unsure about the cabbage/kale taste, of it just boiled, then try adding it shredded to stews, curries stir-fries: Garden Stir-Fry – the way to use up unwanted veg

IMG_7056

Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

IMG_7087

Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

I am going through a bit of an aubergine (eggplant) phase.

This curry is quick, simple and delicious with some rice and parsley and most of the ingredients can be sourced from your own veg patch.

IMG_6924.JPG

IMG_6927.JPG

IMG_6933.JPG

Aubergine Curry

Serves 2

-1 large aubergine, de-stalked and cut into medium sized pieces -Coconut oil, for frying -1 large onion, finely sliced -2 cloves of garlic, diced -1 1/2tsp mustard seeds -1tsp nigella seeds – 1tsp coriander seeds -1/2 tsp ground turmeric -1 1/2 tsp garam masala -4 large tomatoes/ 8 cherry tomatoes, cut into pieces -2 handfuls of parsley, to serve -Rice, to serve

  1. Preheat the grill to high. Place the aubergine under the grill and toast until lightly charred on each side. Set aside.
  2. Put the coconut oil in a frying pan and add the onion. Fry until turning golden, then turn the heat down to simmer.
  3. Add the mustard, nigella and coriander seeds. Mix and simmer for a couple of minutes before adding the ground turmeric and garam masala, followed by the garlic. Mix.
  4. Add the chopped tomato and turn the heat up. Keep stirring. The aim is to get the tomatoes to break down as much as possible before serving.
  5. Cut the aubergine into small pieces and mix into the curry. Keep stirring for a few minutes until the tomatoes have released their juices and broken down so that the ingredients look combined.
  6. Serve with fresh parsley scattered on top alongside rice (or I have had it with potatoes, to make it extra home-grown magic).

IMG_6937.JPG

IMG_7087.JPG

Mustard

Mustard plants are any of several plant species in the genera Brassica and Sinapis in the family Brassicaceae. Mustard seed is used as a spice ( Collecting Mustard Seeds). Grinding and mixing the seeds with water, vinegar, or other liquids, creates the yellow condiment we buy from the supermarkets. The seeds can also be pressed to make mustard oil, and the leaves can be eaten as mustard greens.

The word mustard is derived from the Latin mustum or must, the grape juice that the Romans mixed with honey and the ground seeds of the mustard plant (sinapi) to create their mustum ardens, or ‘burning must’.

mustard4.jpg
(Photo from the internet – I don’t have many clear pictures of mustard plants despite there being such a huge quantity in my veg patches…)

Some varieties of mustard plants were well-established crops in Hellenistic and Roman times but it is historically noted that: “There are almost no archeological records available for any of these crops”. Wild forms of mustard and its relatives, the radish and turnip, can be located in west Asia and Europe, suggesting that their domestication took place somewhere in that area. However, historians have concluded: “Suggestions as to the origins of these plants are necessarily based on linguistic considerations”. Encyclopædia Britannica states that mustard was grown by the Indus Civilisation of 2500-1700 BCE. According to the Saskatchewan Mustard Development Commission, “Some of the earliest known documentation of mustard’s use dates back to Sumerian and Sanskrit texts from 3000 BC”.

The mustard plant was brought to Britain by the Romans via France and there are numerous Roman recipes that use mustard as an ingredient. However serious mustard production was first recorded in France in the 9th century, usually based in religious establishments and this then spread to Britain in the 9th century. By the 14th century mustard was being grown in various parts of the country including the area around Tewkesbury, where the mustard was mixed with horseradish and took the name of the town. Most mustard produced in the Middle Ages was based on using the whole or crushed seeds, mixing them with liquid and letting the mix mature. The mix was often dried, making it easier for transportation, and then liquid added again when required for use.

In the 18th century, with the developments in milling techniques the husks of the seeds could be more easily removed and the seeds finely ground. The first record of the production of mustard flour is credited to Mrs Clements of Durham in 1720 who managed to keep the milling technique used a secret for some time allowing Durham to become the centre of mustard production in the country and allowing herself to accumulate considerable sums of money selling her mustard flour. Once her milling secret was discovered, other entrepreneurs began to invest in mustard production. Most notable in the 19th century was Jeremiah Colman who began milling mustard at his flour mill in Norwich. His mustard became the English mustard, a finely milled flour, yellow in colour (assisted by the addition of turmeric) and very hot in taste.

Mustard is now a world-wide condiment and there are numerous companies involved in making, using and marketing the product. The whole or ground seeds are still an important ingredient in cooking, especially in India and Asia, while in Europe and the Americas the processed seeds are still used as a table condiment.

There are three main varieties: white (Brassica alba) brown (Brassica juncea) and black (Brassica nigra).

Recent research has studied varieties of mustards with high oil contents for use in the production of biodiesel, a renewable liquid fuel similar to diesel fuel. The biodiesel made from mustard oil has good cold flow properties and cetane ratings. The leftover meal after pressing out he oil has also been found to be an effective pesticide.

We use mustard as green manure. Green manure is created by leaving uprooted or sown crop parts to wither on a field so that they serve as a mulch and soil amendment.  Typically, they are ploughed under and incorporated into the soil while green or shortly after flowering. Green manure is commonly associated with organic farming and can play an important role in sustainable annual cropping systems.The value of green manure was recognized by farmers in India for thousands of years, as mentioned in treatises like Vrikshayurveda. In Ancient Greece too, farmers ploughed broad bean plants into the soil. Chinese agricultural texts dating back hundreds of years refer to the importance of grasses and weeds in providing nutrients for farm soil. It was also known to early North American colonists arriving from Europe. Common colonial green manure crops were rye, buckwheat and oats. Incorporation of green manures into a farming system can drastically reduce, if not eliminate, the need for additional products such as supplemental fertilizers and pesticides.

Benefits of using mustard or any other crop as a green manure:

  • When allowed to flower, the crop provides forage for pollinating insects. Green manure crops also often provide habitat for predatory beneficial insects, which allow for a reduction in the application of insecticides where cover crops are planted.
  • Suppresses other weeds from growing.
  • Green manure acts mainly as soil-acidifying matter to decrease the alkalinity/pH of alkali soils by generating humic acid and acetic acid.
  • Incorporation of cover crops into the soil allows the nutrients held within the green manure to be released and made available to the succeeding crops. This results from an increase in abundance of soil microorganisms from the degradation of plant material that aid in the decomposition of this fresh material.
  • Releases nutrients that improves the soil structure.
  • Reduces likeliness of plant or insect disease, notably verticillium wilt of potatoes.
  • Controls erosion.
  • Used for animal grazing, especially poultry.
  • Contains nitrogen that fertilises the soil without the need of commercial products.

IMG_6569.JPG

So I’ve continued to harvest mustard seeds to put in homemade curries, but my mum has gone one step further – she has started harvesting little young mustards and adding them to her egg sandwiches at lunch time. Here is her recipe:

IMG_6572.JPG
Egg and Mustard Green sandwich open (with beetroot in it and lettuce on the side)

Egg and Mustard Green Sandwich

(Serves 1)

-1 egg -2 slices of bread (or 1 large cut in half) -Butter -1 tbsp mayonnaise -1 handful of mustard -Lettuce, tomatoes or other salad, to serve

  1. Bring a pan of water to the boil. Stick a pin into the top of the egg and remove. Put the egg into the pan of boiling water and leave until it has become a hard boiled egg (completely solid). This could be between 5-10 minutes.
  2. Remove from the heat, drain the hot water and cover the egg in cold water, leaving it to cool.
  3. Spread butter over the bread so that both halves of the bread are covered on one side.
  4. Once cold, remove the egg from the pan and peel away the shell. Cut the egg into thin slices, then dice so that it is in lots of cubes.
  5. Mix the egg into the mayonnaise and then spread over the buttered bread. Add the mustard greens on top. Close the sandwich and serve with salad.

IMG_6573.JPG

Collecting Mustard Seeds

I was making curry for my birthday on Saturday (hello 22!) when I realised, to my horror I had forgotten to buy more mustard seeds from Sainsbury’s and we were all out 😦 But heh, never mind. Then mum got really excited and vanished off to the garden to pick some lettuce and returned with a bowl of mustard seeds she had harvested from the vegetable patch, aka the weeds I am always trying to get rid of.

Now, the two irritating weeds that flourish in my garden despite my best efforts (apart from nettles that just pop up everywhere from the manure we use, that I am at war with constantly after one stung me on the face last week and made me feel like a fool!), the most common to find are a) goosegrass, and b) mustard.

This year it has been even harder to keep the weeds under control after being absent for only a couple of months and it is harder to pull up the mustard when it starts flowering and your mum wants to keep it because the bees like it…

But we tried frying the mustard seeds in the curry, and I tried a fried one on its own, and it was really good! So I’ve started putting the unwanted weeds to good use and I am harvesting mustard seeds to store. I felt like a bit of an idiot for buying them for so long when they have been flourishing in my garden for years!

IMG_6464.JPG

It is really easy to harvest them. When the seed pods have formed and are dried out so that they are brown and crispy, like paper bags, get a pair of scissors and snip off the pods (or stems with the pods on, the pods are very delicate and will break easily and spill the seeds everywhere) into a container. Open each pod and empty the little mustard seeds into a container for storing, it is that simple!

We bought brown coloured mustard seeds from the shops, but our homegrown ones are black which are the variety my mum has tried to buy for so long to make curries. Apparently, they come from one of three different plants: black mustard (Brassica nigra), brown Indian mustard (Brassica junga), or white mustard (Brassica hirta/Sinapis alba).

IMG_6465.JPG

Grinding and mixing the seeds with water and vinegar creates the yellow condiment of prepared mustard.

An archaic name for the seed is eye of newt. Often misunderstood for an actual eye of a newt this name has been popularly associated with witchcraft ever since it was mentioned as an ingredient to a witch’s brew in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

These mustard seeds are known in Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi as sarson. They are also planted to grow saag (greens) which are stir-fried and eaten as a vegetable preparation, called sarson ka saag in Urdu and Hindi. Sarson ka tel (mustard oil) is used for body massage during extreme winters, as it is assumed to keep the body warm.

Mustard seeds generally take eight to ten days to germinate. They can handle a cold atmosphere and relatively moist soil. Mature mustard plants grow into shrubs.

Mustard grows well in temperate regions. Major producers of mustard seeds include India, Pakistan, Canada, Nepal, Hungary, Great Britain and the United States. Brown and black mustard seeds return higher yields than their yellow counterparts.

In Pakistan, rapeseed-mustard is the second most important source of oil, after cotton. It is cultivated over an area of 307,000 hectares with annual production of 233,000 tonnes and contributes about 17% to the domestic production of edible oil. Mustard seeds are a rich source of oil and protein. The seed has oil as high as 46-48%, and whole seed meal has 43.6% protein.

Use mustard seeds in these Indian curries:

Courgettes – Red Lentil Dahl

Okra – Curried Okra

Curried Potatoes and Bread maker Naan Bread

Cucumbers – Paneer Curry

Okra

Okra (okro, ladies’ fingers, ochro or gumba) is from the mallow family (includes cotton and cacao). The flowering plant has edible green seed pods.

IMG_3554.jpg

Okra’s origins are disputed – it is generally believed that it originated from Ethiopia. The routes by which okra was taken from Ethiopia to North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, Arabia, and India, and when, are by no means certain. The Egyptians and Moors of the 12th and 13th centuries used the Arabic word for the plant, bamya, suggesting it had come into Egypt from Arabia, but earlier it was probably taken from Ethiopia to Arabia. The plant may have entered southwest Asia across the Red Sea or the Bab-el-Manded straight to the Arabian Peninsula, rather than north across the Sahara, or from India. One of the earliest accounts of okra use is by a Spanish Moor who visited Egypt in 1216 and described the plant under cultivation by the locals who ate the pods with meal.

From Arabia okra was spread over North Africa, completely around the Mediterranean, and eastward.The absence of any ancient Indian names for it suggests that it reached India after the beginning of the Christian Era. Although the plant has been well known in India for a long time, it is not found wild there. Modern travelers have found okra growing truly wild, however, along the White Nile and elsewhere in the upper Nile country as well as in Ethiopia.

The plant was introduced to the Americas by ships plying the Atlantic Slave Trade by 1658, when its presence was recorded in Brazil. In Louisiana, the Créoles learned from slaves the use of okra (gumbo) to thicken soups and it is now an essential in Créole Gumbo. Okra may have been introduced to southeastern North America from Africa in the early 18th century. By 1748, it was being grown as far north as Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson noted it was well established in Virginia by 1781. It was commonplace throughout the South by 1800, and the first mention of different cultivars was in 1806.

Today okra is popular in Africa, the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, India, the Caribbean, South America and the Southern U.S. It is not a very common vegetable in most European countries, except for Greece and parts of Turkey. Okra is commonly associated in Southern, Creole, and Cajun cooking since it was initially introduced into the United States in its southern region. It grows well in these warm climates.

The species is a perennial, often cultivated as an annual in temperate climates, and often grows to around 2 metres (6.6 ft) tall. The leaves are 10–20 centimetres (3.9–7.9 in) long and broad, palmately lobed with 5–7 lobes. The flowers are 4–8 centimetres (1.6–3.1 in) in diameter, with five white to yellow petals, often with a red or purple spot at the base of each petal. The fruit is a capsule up to 18 centimetres (7.1 in) long with pentagonal cross-section, containing numerous seeds. Okra is cultivated throughout the tropical and warm temperate regions of the world for its fibrous fruits or pods containing round, white seeds. It is among the most heat- and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and will tolerate soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture, but frost can damage the pods.

IMG_3557.jpg

Sow okra seeds indoors as early as February, about an inch in pots of compost. Leave in a warm room to germinate and keep well watered. Once a good height, plant on into large pots and keep in a greenhouse. They like humid conditions so keep well watered.

The seed pods rapidly become fibrous and woody and, to be edible, must be harvested when immature, usually within a week after pollination. They can be frozen easy-peasy in a bag or kept in the fridge for a few days before use.

Okra is available in two varieties, green and red. Red okra carries the same flavor as the more popular green okra and differs only in color. When cooked, the red okra pods turn green.

The most common disease afflicting the okra plant is verticillium wilt often causing a yellowing and wilting of the leaves. Other diseases include powdery mildew in dry tropical regions, leaf spots, and root-knot-nematodes.

Okra is a good source of vitamin C and A, also B complex vitamins, iron and calcium. It is a good source of dietary fibre.

Ridged along its length, the green, fuzzy pod contains rows of edible seeds that release a mucilaginous (sticky) liquid when chopped and cooked, which has led to it being used to thicken soup and stew recipes but it can also served whole as a side dish. Its flavour is quite subtle, so it benefits from being cooked with strong, spicy ingredients. Stir-fry, chopped or whole (6-12 minutes); steam whole (5 minutes); grill whole (2-3 minutes each side); chop and add to soups, stews and casseroles.

This is an Indian curried version of okra – a simple recipe for using it. You just slice the okra up into pieces and fry it in the spice mix until cooked. Serve it as a side dish alongside another curry, some rice and some naan bread for extra yummy-ness.

IMG_4138.JPG

Curried Okra

(Serves 6)

– 1 large onion, finely sliced – Ghee or oil, for frying – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1 tbsp nigella seeds – 1/2 tbsp fenegreek seeds – 1 handful curry leaves (optional) – 1 tsp cumin – 1 tsp ground coriander – 1 tsp ground turmeric – 1 1/4  tsp ground garam masala -2 large garlic cloves, diced -250g okra, cut into chunks

  1. Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat for a few minutes until the onion turns golden brown before turning down to simmer. Add the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
  2. Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala. Add the garlic. Stir in the cut up chunks of okra and leave to simmer until fried and combined with the spices.
  3. Remove from the heat and serve alongside more curry, rice or Indian breads, such as naan or chapatis. Store any left overs in the fridge or freeze.