For the born-and-bred Southerner, few culinary experiences rival the intense satisfaction of biting into perfectly fried okra.
“Whether it was at Sunday dinner, in a cafeteria or in a restaurant, a meal simply wasn’t complete without fried okra,” said Marcus Davis, who owns Kulture, a Southern restaurant in his native Houston, where Black food takes center stage.
For generations, Southerners have boiled and steamed the okra pod, or used it as a nutritious thickener for soups and stews. But it is the fried version that is most beloved. A handful or two of fried okra is often served at restaurants or by home cooks as an appetizer or a side dish. There’s a familiar structure to it: Textured, forest-green pods are typically sliced into small rounds, coated in a seasoned batter and fried to a cook’s liking (deep or pan-fried).
What makes fried okra so special is more than how it’s prepared: It’s how the dish reflects the spirit of the Black American cooks who have preserved its legacy, while creating their own versions and interpretations.
“When I see fried okra, I think about the bigger picture of us as Africans in America,” Mr. Davis said. “I think about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I think about how okra got here, and I think about what the crop means and has meant historically in our nation. I’m hoping that, when people are eating our fried okra, they’re thinking about some of those things, too.”
Derek S. Hicks, an associate professor of religion and culture at Wake Forest University, has studied African American religion and foodways throughout much of his academic career. In his work, he notes that the word okra comes from the Igbo language of Nigeria, and argues that, while the exact origins of fried okra are unclear, the technique of frying the vegetable most likely stems from West Africa.
“Deep frying was used by African cooks for a variety of foods, such as yams, okra, plantains and bananas,” Mr. Hicks said, adding, “enslaved people would have prepared many foods this way during Colonial and Antebellum periods.”
At Kulture, Mr. Davis gives a rotating group of young Black chefs a place to iterate on classic dishes like oxtail ragout, fried fish fillets and Johnny cakes. The form of fried okra changes depending on the chef. In a recent version, the okra was sliced lengthwise down the middle, coated in a tempura batter, then deep fried and served with a homemade hot sauce.
“Having fried okra on the menu was meant to give the chefs the opportunity to present their interpretation of what their grandma had put in front of them so many years ago,” Mr. Davis said.
But, for some Black Americans, simplicity is key.
“My focus is making sure you can taste okra,” said the Gullah Geechee cook Emily Meggett. To Mrs. Meggett, the author of “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island” (a book I co-wrote), a good taste of okra is a taste of the Black American South.
She dislikes the heavy batter found in many fried okra dishes at Southern restaurants. So she opts for okra touched with just enough cornmeal and pan-fries the vegetable.
Some cooks prefer using frozen cut okra, but for Joseph J. Boudreaux III, a partner in Tipping Point Coffee in Houston, fresh okra yields the best flavor and the best texture.
“Okra is one of my favorite vegetables, so the idea of taking it and turning it into this really flavorful side has always been something I’ve appreciated about our culture,” he said.
His fried okra also takes cues from his father, Joseph, an avid gardener originally from Breaux Bridge, La.
“The way I see my dad do it, he doesn’t use recipes or anything like that,” the younger Mr. Boudreaux said. “It’s always been by feeling. And so that’s essentially what I did when I made my own fried okra recipe.”
He prioritizes a well-seasoned cornmeal batter — and uses fresh okra from his father’s garden nearby.
“I guess I channeled the ancestors a little bit,” he said.