In Louisiana, Gumbo is King. Although the history of gumbo and its ingredients varies, for the faithful, a steaming bowl of aromatic gumbo is one of life’s true pleasures.
Gumbo is an example of the melting pot that is Louisiana cooking. It is a quintessentially Creole soup-and-rice dish cooked in the New Orleans region for almost 300 years. Its name derives from the West African word, ki ngombo, the term for okra in the Central Bantu dialect of West Africa. And recent scholarship on the issue suggests that gumbo’s African origins go beyond just its name.
Enslaved Africans brought okra and rice to Louisiana cuisine, while German immigrants introduced the art of sausage-making. Settlers from the Canary Islands fished for shrimp, crabs, and oysters. Islanders also introduced cayenne pepper, ground from spicy red chilis.
Creole is an important term in New Orleans culture. The word evolved from crioulo, a Portuguese name applied to slaves of African descent but born in the New World. Later, Creole came to signify the people and culture of all ethnicities native to Louisiana, including creole cuisine.
According to Dr. Carl A. Brasseaux of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the first documented references to gumbo appeared around the turn of the 19th century.
In 1803, the gubernatorial reception menu in New Orleans included gumbo, and in 1804 Louisiana gumbo was served at a Cajun gathering on the Acadian Coast.
Gumbo’s distinctive flavors
Contemporary gumbo usually includes seafood or chicken and sausage. But all gumbo recipes, whether File or dark roux-based, have their roots in new world cuisine.
One of the gumbo’s distinctive flavors comes from filé powder, a spice from the leaves of the sassafras plant. Filé can thicken gumbo when okra isn’t in season or used purely for flavor. Sassafras was supposedly added by Native Americans, specifically the Choctaw Tribe, whose word for sassafras was kombo.
Roux has its origin in French cuisine and is a mixture of flour and oil employed by French cooks as early as the 14th century. Although the roux used in gumbo usually is much darker, further complicating the history of gumbo
Like most Louisiana cooking, gumbo comes in two versions, Cajun and Creole. Cajun gumbo can be identified by its dark roux. It often features seafood, fowl, or sausage. By contrast, Creole gumbo involves tomatoes as the main ingredient. Tomatoes are seldom used in Cajun cuisine and often incorporate a lighter roux, making for a thicker dish.
After solving the File versus Roux conundrum, there is one more discussion to be settled – to okra or not to okra! Once decided, the possibilities for your gumbo recipe are virtually endless. Some cooks add hard-boiled eggs to chicken and sausage gumbos, and quail eggs are used as a delicacy.
Seafood gumbos often include crabs, shrimp, and oysters. And chicken and sausage gumbo make for a hearty meal.
Hunters often combine wild game in the gumbo pot. The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook, published in New Orleans in 1901, includes recipes for various gumbos. The main ingredients are chicken, ham, oysters, turkey, wild turkey, squirrel, rabbit, beef, veal, crabs, soft-shell crabs, shrimp, greens, and cabbage.
Turkey and sausage gumbos frequently appear during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. An unusual but delicious holiday combination is a gumbo of steak, smoked sausage, and oysters. Some cooks use ham or tasso in their gumbos, and others use the fresh link in place of the smoked variety.
It’s still gumbo
But gumbo ingredients are not all meat. Red and green bell peppers, celery, garlic, and onion are all used to make the best gumbos.
And for a fresh alternative, try some gumbo z’herbes, a meatless version created for Catholics avoiding meat during Lent. Turnips, mustard greens, and spinach are cooked down and strained to make a tasty but time-consuming dish that’s hard to find in New Orleans restaurants.
Gumbo is always served with rice. Or is it? A Frenchman who published an account of his travels throughout the French Colony in 1803-1805, C.C. Robin, reported that gumbo was served with cornmeal mush.
The story of gumbo
Gumbo is a community dish. This soup is meant to be cooked in large quantities and shared. It is also forgiving. Measurements do not have to be exact, and a cook may use whatever ingredients are at hand.
Gumbo combines the heritage of many of Louisiana’s first inhabitants into one seamless, delicious dish that can be modified and experimented on in countless ways!