Gumbo is a stew that originated in southern Louisiana during the 18th century. It consists primarily of a strongly-flavoured stock, meat or shellfish, a thickener, and the Cajun holy trinity of vegetables, namely celery, capsicum (bell peppers), and onions. Gumbo is often categorised by the type of thickener used, the vegetable okra, the Choctaw spice filé powder (dried and ground sassafras leaves), or roux, the French base made of flour and fat. The dish likely derived its name from either a word from a Bantu language for okra (ki ngombo) or the Choctaw word for filé (kombo).
Several different varieties exist. Creole gumbo generally contains shellfish, tomatoes, and a thickener. Cajun gumbo is generally based on a dark roux and is spicier, with either shellfish or fowl. Sausage or ham is often added to gumbos of either variety. After the base is prepared, vegetables are cooked down, and then meat is added. The dish simmers for a minimum of three hours, with shellfish and some spices added near the end. If desired, filé powder is added after the pot is removed from heat. Gumbo is traditionally served over rice. A third, lesser-known variety, the meatless gumbo z’herbes, is essentially a gumbo of slow-cooked greens sometimes thickened with roux, with rice served on the side.
The dish combines ingredients and culinary practices of several cultures, including French, Spanish, German, West African, and Choctaw. Gumbo may have been based on traditional West African or native dishes, or may be a derivation of the French dish bouillabaisse. It was first described in 1802, and was listed in various cookbooks in the latter half of the 19th century. The dish gained more widespread popularity in the 1970s, after the United States Senate cafeteria added it to the menu in honour of Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender. The popularity of chef Paul Prudhomme in the 1980s spurred further interest in gumbo. The dish is the official cuisine of the state of Louisiana.
Gumbo is a heavily seasoned soup or stew that combines several varieties of meat or seafood with a sauce or gravy. Any combination of meat or seafood can be used. Meat-based gumbo may consist of chicken, duck, squirrel, or rabbit, with oysters occasionally added. Seafood-based gumbo generally has shrimp, crabmeat, and sometimes oysters. Andouille Sausage is often added to both meat and seafood gumbos to provide “piquancy, substance, and an additional layer of flavour” to the dish. With the exception of sausage and ham, beef and pork are almost never used. Most varieties of gumbo are seasoned with onions, parsley, capsicum (bell pepper), and celery. Tomatoes are sometimes used in seafood gumbo, but traditionally few other vegetables are included.
Gumbo sauce or gravy derives from three primary thickeners: okra, filé powder, and roux. Traditionally, okra and filé powder are not used in the same dish, although this rule is sometimes broken. Roux can be used alone or in conjunction with either of the other thickeners.
Okra is more often used as a thickener in seafood gumbos than those with meat. This mucilaginous vegetable is usually cooked first, and other ingredients added once the desired consistency is reached. According to The Oxford Companion to Food, okra-based gumbos are becoming less popular, as changing tastes have made the okra texture less palatable.
Ground sassafras leaf, known as filé, is generally not added to the gravy until after the vegetables and meats or seafood have finished cooking and have been removed from the heat source. If added during the boiling process, filé makes the gumbo too ropey; when added at the end, the gumbo gains a slightly stringy texture.
Roux has become the most popular thickener, made from cooking together a roughly equal proportion of flour and fat (traditionally hog lard, although increasingly made with butter since the mid-20th century). The length of cooking time determines the final flavour and texture, since the longer the roux is cooked before being added to the gumbo, the darker it becomes and the less thickening power it retains. A very dark roux provides a much thinner sauce with a more intense flavour than a light roux.
Cajun vs. Creole Gumbo
Gumbo is typically divided into two varieties. Combinations traditionally common in New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana are known as “Creole” after the Louisiana Creole people, descendants of French and Spanish settlers, who lived in those areas. “Cajun” combinations were common in southwestern Louisiana, which was populated primarily by Cajuns, descendants of the French-speaking settlers expelled from Acadia (in northeastern North America) in the mid-18th century.
Cajun gumbo is usually identified by its dark roux, cooked until it is a colour “a few shades from burning”. The roux is used with okra or filé powder. Seafood is popular in Cajun gumbo, but the southwestern areas of Louisiana often use fowl, such as chicken or duck, and sausage. The fowl is generally not deboned, and onions, celery, and bell pepper are not strained out of the dish. Cajun gumbo is usually topped with parsley and green onions.
Creole gumbo most often consists of seafood, tomatoes, and a thickener. This variety is generally not as spicy as Cajun gumbo, as cayenne pepper is used much more sparingly. Before the latter half of the 20th century, celery was rarely used in Creole gumbo.
When Catholics were expected to abstain from eating meat during Lent, a meatless variety of gumbo, known as gumbo z’herbes (literally “gumbo with herbs”), was often served. This variety combined a large number of greens – typically including turnips, mustard greens, and spinach. The greens were cooked to mush and strained through a sieve to produce a thick green liquid. Preparation for this variety of gumbo was time-consuming, and as Lenten restrictions have relaxed, the dish has become less popular. It is very rarely served in restaurants. In modern times, ham or crabmeat is occasionally added to this type of gumbo.
Preparation and Serving
Gumbo is cooked for a minimum of three hours, and often simmers all day. Meat (but not seafood) is often browned beforehand and removed from the heat. Okra and roux are cooked before other vegetables and seafood. Okra is removed from heat when it reaches the desired consistency, while roux remains in the pot. Seasoning vegetables are then added to the sauce. When these have turned to mush (more commonly called cooked down), the meat and okra are added to the pot along with water and/or stock, then boiled uncovered until the desired tenderness of the meat is reached. Seasonings, including red, black, and white pepper, bay leaves, thyme, hot sauce, and salt, are added to taste. According to Nobles, “proper seasoning of gumbo is essential, and in Louisiana adding just the right zing is considered an art”. Because seafood cooks fairly quickly, it is not added to the pot until the end of the process. As the gumbo finishes cooking, green onions and parsley are sometimes sprinkled on it. When desired, filé powder is added last.
Creole and Cajun gumbos are served over hot rice, which helps the dish to feed a larger number of people. Gumbo z’herbes is served with rice on the side. Gumbo is almost always served directly from the pot on the stove, although in wealthier or fancier homes the dish might be transferred to a tureen on the table. Often, gumbo and bread are the sole courses in a meal, although many Cajun families provide a side dish of potato salad. Occasionally, gumbo is served as part of a larger menu.