Although its pods pop up in the cuisines of India, Brazil, Greece, and Turkey, okra owes its origin in the South to colonial dishes created by Africans; it earns its popularity on the Southern table by being a staunch survivor of the summer heat. While some associate okra only with its mucilaginous nature (ungraciously referred to as “slime”), crafty cooks employ it to thicken the gumbos and okra stews the region is known for.
Charleston chef Alluette Jones-Smalls holds the fuzzy green pods in high regard. “I love cooking with fresh okra because the vegetable is so versatile,” she explains. “You can sauté, stew, boil, and steam okra. Or you can fry it whole like a French fry.”
However, the only time you’ll find okra served at her restaurant, Alluette’s Café, is from July to September, because the vegetables in her Gullah holistic soul food dishes are seasonal, organic, and sourced from Joseph Fields Farm. When they’re in season, Jones-Smalls puts the pods to work in three favorite dishes served at her nationally lauded eatery, which will soon move to new digs. (Look for the address to be announced this fall.)
Alluette’s is a no-sugar, no-pork restaurant where fresh, wild-caught seafood is delivered daily, the beef and chicken are both pastured, and there is a substantial vegan and vegetarian clientele, so Jones-Smalls makes her okra fried rice a healthy dish by using coconut oil, organic brown rice, and wheat-free tamari. Her curried okra stir-fry is a colorful, crunchy tableau of vegetables and herbs, with full flavors that satisfy the carnivore as well as the vegetarian.
For her fried okra, she gives whole pods a 15-minute buttermilk bath and then dredges them in a simply seasoned flour and cornstarch combo that makes the dish slime-free and crisp.
“Okra is a fragile vegetable that doesn’t store well,” says Jones-Smalls. To make the most of it, look for firm young pods, preferably two inches in length, bright green in color, and with no bruises, she advises. Freeze or pickle the vegetable if you can’t cook it shortly after you purchase it.
Dishing it up with Chef Alluette Jones-Smalls
Restaurant: Alluette’s Café
First F&B gig: Owner of Line Street Grill and Grocery
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history from Savannah State College; graduate of Cappa Chell modeling and finishing school in Washington, D.C.
Favorite local ingredient: Tomatoes
Recipe you'll never share: “My fried shrimp and my true lima bean soup”