'Simple' okra soup a Lowcountry staple

A bowl of okra soup at Bertha's Kitchen on Meeting Street Road.

Okra, which first traveled to the Americas on slaving ships, finds its ultimate Lowcountry exposition in a soup invariably described as "simple" and "nothing fancy."

But the dish, traditionally paired with white rice, makes up in popularity for what it lacks in elaboration. The two recipes for okra soup printed in the "Charleston Receipts" cookbook follow the same general outline: Lots and lots of okra is simmered with tomatoes, onions and a meaty beef shank. According to cookbook author John Martin Taylor, a "soup bunch" of carrots, celery, thyme, turnips and cabbage is an acceptable addition to the pot.

Brothers Matt Lee and Ted Lee maintain okra soup is as integral to Charleston cuisine as tourist favorite she-crab soup. In their recent cookbook, "The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen," they point out that when well-known food writer Clementine Paddleford visited Charleston in 1952, she was treated to an okra soup demonstration.

Unlike gumbo, okra soup doesn't involve a thickening roux. Still, the all-season classic can have just as much punch as its Louisiana kin: In "The Food, Folklore and Art of Lowcountry Cooking," Joseph Dabney recounts the "bird's-eye pepper ritual," in which dinner guests were asked if they'd like a pepper or two crushed in the bottom of their bowls before the soup was ladled.

Although party hosts may still produce tureens of the soup, it's now more frequently found in church parish hall tearooms and soul food joints. Bertha's Kitchen okra soup, unusually seasoned with pork, is perhaps the definitive local rendition of the iconic dish.