Slimy Superfoods: West African Okra & Fish Stew

I love okra a lot.  I almost constantly crave the seductively silky slime that oozes between the bright bubble-like seeds of the tender pod.  There’s really nothing else like the texture of good, young, fresh, homegrown okra.  So when I saw it for $3.50 a pound at Greensgrow’s Saturday market (try $8 at some other farm standsI was all over it.  Nice combo of pretty green and purple varietals with dainty pods, which is good when you’re talking okra.  The longer the pod, the more likely it has grown woody.  These, though, looked perfect.

If my description of okra’s many fine qualities has you grimacing with disgust, keep in mind that it also happens to be a nutritional powerhouse, especially when it comes to healthy digestion.  The mucilaginous fiber contained in the pods is like compost for your poop.  It bulks, greases, detoxes, feeds your healthy probiotic gut bacteria…intestine heaven.  Look out for a blast of vitamin C, folate (a B vitamin that your red blood cells love), calcium and potassium too.  And with almost no accompanying calories, fat or cholesterol, this superfood is a golden ticket to health, weight loss, happiness, and, at $3.50 a pound, a fatter wallet too.

What better way to enjoy a superfood than with roots.  And those aren’t hard to come by for this little “finger” food.  Okra is a dietary staple from West Africa through the Sahara and across Asia to Japan.  It’s been part of local cultures for centuries…defining textural tastes (neba neba!)…thickening traditional dishes (gumbo’s got roots too)…supposedly even keeping Cleopatra’s skin free and clear of any unsightly acne.  Cool.

When it came time to turn my okra into dinner, I was so exhausted from lugging 40 lb bags of mushroom poop up three flights of stairs to my third story garden that all I could possibly take on was something relatively fast and super simple.  West Africa fit that bill.  Across this largely tropical coast, history and ecology have produced rich and entirely unique cuisines that also happen to rely on very few available resources and ingredients.  Simple food.  And sometimes fast.

Born was this uncomplicated and somehow deeply flavorful stew roughly based on the many varieties of ancestral gumbo cooked throughout West Africa, especially Senegal and Nigeria.  It was claimed that this may have been the best thing I have cooked in the past six months.  And not by me.  A great home for a great fruit.

NOTE: I would seriously encourage you to orchestrate some homemade stock into this dish.  As with all simple cooking, it’s the quality of the ingredients that truly matters.

West African Okra & Fish Stew

so easy, very healthy

serves 2 as a meal, 4 as not really a meal

  • shrimp stock (or any other stock) — homemade
  • pint or so okra, sliced into rounds — Greensgrow
  • kale (or any hearty green), roughly chopped — Fountain Farmers’ Market
  • white or yellow onion. roughly diced — Fountain Farmers’ Market
  • white stock fish (I used tilapia cause it’s what they had, but red snapper or mackerel might be better), rinsed and cubed — Whole Foods
  • peanut butter — Trader Joes
  • bay leaf — Whole Foods
  • cayenne (or red pepper flakes) — homeground
  • lime — El Zarape Grocery Store
  • large yam — Whole Foods
  1. Get started: in large soup/stock pot bring 4 cups stock, onion, bay leaf and okra to boil and let simmer for 10 minutes or until okra is softened but not mushy
  2. Meanwhile: boil yam until soft and then mash, with skin on
  3. Add other stuff: add 2ish tbs of peanut butter, a light dash of cayenne or red pepper and chopped greens
  4. Add fish: once greens are wilted and soft after about 5 minutes add fish cubes and continue to cook until just opaque, about 3 minutes
  5. Serve: squeeze lime over soup, serve with mash yam

5 thoughts on “Slimy Superfoods: West African Okra & Fish Stew

  1. I think this is slightly an Americanized version of Okra stew, but it sounds good. Typically, we would not mash the yam and never cook it with the skin on. It is woody and grainy, generally dusty and dirty and hard to wash. I suspect that is why we remove it. It likely would not taste good.

    However, what Americans call yams are what we call sweet potato. So, perhaps this is the difference. You would not want to cook a yam with the skin on here. And ground nut paste, or what you call peanut butter (which is actually different and sweeter than ground nut paste), would not generally be used in this dish. But, it does sound like a nice twist on a traditional dish.

    Actually, I just got through having this less than an hour ago. There are many different versions here in West Africa. But, they all have some things in common. The fish or chicken stock is the same here. However, what we also do is grind (pulverize) in a clay bowl with a pestle tomato, hot pepper (seeds removed) and red onion. This forms the base along with the stock.

    Some people, like the Ewe, like to grind dried fish along with this also. But, I cannot say I am a fan of this method of preparation. Also, some will grind the okra as well, which makes for a really gooey gumbo, while others prefer simply to chop it into small bits instead.

    To this we generally add tomato paste as it cooks to add some more flavor and body to the stock. You may place cubed chicken, meat or fish in the stew while it cooks as well, and most people will add one or another.

    This can be served with banku, fufu, boiled yam or abelemma, which is much like fufu, although a bit lighter and much, much easier to prepare. Other ways of serving it are with rice balls or even over cooked rice as well. All in all, it is one of my favorite local dishes.

    Bon Apppetit!

    1. Thank you so much for this! You’re totally right on the americanization…if anything it’s West Africa “inspired” 🙂 My pantry meant I had to look across a few cultures and countries (and cut a few corners) to find something I could manage.

      I’m so looking forward to trying your suggestions for bringing this soup even closer to it’s roots, especially making some banku to serve! Thanks again!

      1. You’re welcome, Emily. There is something kaaweh they add to the stew also to soften the okra. I am not certain what this really is, and it looks like some sort of dark, raw salt. But, it does exactly what they say it does, and the stew will become a little more gooey and the okra soft. Will look back and try to update you if I ever find our what kaaweh actually is.

  2. I was going to say you found Yams at Whole foods?! Then I figured out you must be talking about Louisiana Yams not African Yams otherwise you would not have put a large yam. I will have to try mashing some yam next time I get some I have to drive to Denver to the African Market to get them as i live in the Colorado Springs area and we do not have an African Market or any Market that I am aware of in the area that sell Yams.

  3. To update you the kawoo, or kaaweh, I mentioned is actually salt petre, or potassium nitrate, as I’ve been able to find out. If you add a small amount no larger than a fingernail to the okra when stewing it will soften the okra and you’ll get a dish that is much more authentic as far as West African cuisine goes. It becomes very gooey and is easy to eat with banku or fufu.

    Also, I believe they may use yams (not American sweet potatoes) in Mexican cuisine. Seems to me that I have seen these in supermarkets that carry ethnic Mexican foods in America. They look much like cassava though without the stem, and are roughly the same size. I don’t recommend cooking this with the skin on though. The bark or skin contains strychnine, and should be removed prior to cooking. It is also important to limit skin contact with raw yams, as it can produce itching. It’s recommended that you wash your hands thoroughly after removing the outer bark, and if frying, soak the cut yam in water before hand to remove some of the starch. You’ll get much better results.

    Here’s a good picture of what to look for in the store:

    Bon appetit!

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