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Chinese okra is an elongated gourd with dark green skin, lined with evenly spaced ridged peaks, that taper at each end. They can be harvested when young, around 15 to 25 centimeters long, but average 30 to 40 centimeters in length and 5 to 7 centimeters wide. Chinese okra is tender; the bright white flesh has spongy texture and offers a silky, subtly sweet flavor when cooked. As it matures, the skin becomes tough and bitter and the flesh becomes fibrous and woody.
Chinese okra is available year-round with a peak season in the summer months.
Chinese okra, also referred to as Angled Luffa, is not related to the small vegetables known as ‘okra’ in the United States. It is botanically classified as Luffa acutangula and is known in Southeast Asia as Sinkwa and Torai in India. The subtropical vine and member of the family Cucurbitaceae is related to squash, melons and cucumbers. There are two varieties of Luffa cultivated for culinary use, the other is a smooth-skinned variety L. aegyptiaca (or L. cylindrica). Chinese okra is prepared and eaten like other summer squash varieties.
Chinese okra is an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin A. The ridged gourd also contains iron and protein.
Chinese okra can be eaten raw when young and around 15 centimeters long and 3 centimeters thick. More mature fruits can be prepared much like zucchini. They are peeled and sliced or cut into bite-sized pieces for stir-fry, battering and deep frying, to add to fish soups, dahls, or curries. Chinese okra will soak up the flavors of whatever liquid it is prepared in. In India the gourd is used in sabzis, or cooked vegetable dishes, simmered in a spice-filled gravy along with peas, cauliflower and tomatoes. Add it to stews or other vegetable dishes. Pair with seafood, spicy chiles, tamarind, soy sauce, cilantro, eggs and potato. Store Chinese okra in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Both Chinese okra or Angled Luffa, and the smooth-skinned variety simply called Luffa, can be used to make sponges. To make Loofah sponges from the Chinese okra, growers leave the gourds on the vine for up to 2 months until they turn yellow or brown. The skin is peeled off to reveal the fibrous flesh which has dried and hardened, the seeds are shaken out and it is cut into pieces and left to further dry into the familiar-looking scrubber. Though, the infamous Loofah sponges sold in stores are more often made from the smooth-skinned variety.
Chinese okra is native to India where wild forms can still be found. They grow best below 500 meters in the humid tropics but will also grow in some sub-tropical areas like southern Florida and Southern California. The warm weather Chinese okra has a long harvest season, lasting up to 13 weeks, and will produce up to 20 fruits per plant. The long, vining plants are trellised allowing the fruits to grow straighter and to make harvesting easier. Un-trellised fruits will be more curved and twisted. Chinese okra may be spotted at Asian markets in the United States and markets throughout India and Southeast Asia and at farmer’s markets in Southern California.
Recipes that include Chinese Okra. One is easiest, three is harder.