Okra is believed to have originated in the Abyssinian center, an area that includes present-day Ethiopia, the mountainous or plateau portion of Eritrea and the eastern, higher part of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. It spread from Ethiopia to North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, Arabia and India, but the dates and methods of distribution are unknown. Since the Spanish Moors and Egyptians of the 12th and 13th centuries used an Arab word for okra, it probably was taken into Egypt by the Moslems from the East who conquered Egypt in the 7th century. Although it has been commonly cultivated in Egypt for many hundreds of years, no sign of it has ever been found in any of the ancient Egyptian monuments or relics. One of the earliest accounts of okra dates back to 1216 when Abdul-Abbas el-Nebati, a Spaniard of Moorish descent, found it growing along the Nile River in Egypt. Six centuries later, the German explorer, August Schweinfurth, found okra on the banks of the White Nile. In the Old World, okra was cultivated in the Middle East, the Far East, and various parts of Europe. It reached Brazil by 1658 and Dutch Guiana by 1686. Okra came to New Orleans with the African slaves, from whom it received its common name, gombo. In Angola, the Africans called the plant kingombo. The word was later shortened. By 1748, okra was being grown as far north as Philadelphia and in 1781 was listed by Jefferson as being grown in Virginia. Since about 1925 it has appeared increasingly in fresh vegetable markets in the North, although it remains a minor item there.

Excerpted from Sackett, Clarice. 1975February. Fruit & Vegetable Facts & Pointers: Okra. United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, 1019 19th Street, NW, Washington, DC.

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