There are plenty of Louisiana classics that draw foodies to The Big Easy, but perhaps none of them is more iconic than Gumbo. The state dish of Louisiana, Gumbo is a stew-like dish that features meat, a roux, vegetables, and a strong flavor of characteristic Cajun seasoning.
A Louisiana Specialty
The cuisine for which this distinctive Southern state is famous is now known collectively as Cajun and Creole, but back in the day these two types of food were distinct. Cajun was born out of French colonists who had been expelled from Canada when the British took over; they relocated to Louisiana and brought with them some of their French traditions that had been modified by the harsher Northern lifestyle.
Creole was a culture based in New Orleans which originated with the wealthy French and Spanish elite families who had settled there. However, the definition of Creole eventually moved into a more inclusive space that also encompassed people of color with African and Caribbean heritage, which is why you’ll see shades of those cultures in the cuisine.
As far the history of Gumbo goes, the first record of it being served was around the turn of the 19th century. It appeared in both the New Orleans Creole community as well as the rural Cajun one.
The word Gumbo actually derives from an African word meaning okra, which would seem to suggest two things: that okra was, at one point, a more popular method for thickening Gumbo (it is still sometimes used), and that the dish was first called by its modern name in the Creole community, though it appears to have originated as a Cajun dish as well.
Gumbo was originally so popular, particularly in the Cajun community, due to the fact that it is inexpensive yet filling. When resources were scarce, Gumbo provided a flavorful and economical way to feed an entire family, since it can be prepared in very large proportions with just a single pot.
A Step Above Stew
Essentially, Gumbo is a hearty stew that can also be (and frequently is) served with rice. It echoes some of the more famous French dishes prepared in the same fashion, like Coq au Vin. Because of the fact that so many of its components are interchangeable, Gumbo can be tweaked to fit almost any taste.
Equally appealing to its flexibility is Gumbo’s cost effectiveness, the same thing that made it desirable 200 years ago. For the same reason these sorts of dishes, like Kielbasa Stew, became favorites in Europe, they thrived in America. With so few ingredients, and such an easy method of preparation, it’s not hard to see why Gumbo has remained popular for so long.
Gumbo practically makes itself, so as long as you put in the effort to combine the ingredients in the right proportion and are cognizant of checking on the dish as it’s cooking, you’re sure to wind up with an excellent meal.
All Gumbo recipes are a little bit different, particularly in terms of what sort of meat they call for, but this one uses a rather traditional style. It is a chicken and sausage Gumbo (the two are often thrown together in this dish), but many traditional shellfish versions are popular across the state as well.
- Chicken thighs and Andouille Sausage
- Onion, bell pepper, celery
- Butter and flour
- Garlic, basil, thyme, bay leaf
- Cayenne, black pepper, kosher salt
Here, a roux and okra serve as the thickening agents for the gumbo, which stars both chicken and Andouille Sausage. The process of preparing the ingredients should only take about 15 minutes once you have them all:
First, boil and shred the chicken breasts.
- As you do that, you can also boil and simmer the okra as you make your roux with butter and flour.
- Add onions, peppers, and celery to the roux once it has sufficiently darkened.
- Next, stir in the okra and Andouille Sausage. After they have had time to simmer, mix in the chicken, herbs and spices.
- Allow the entire concoction to simmer over low heat until it has combined nicely and achieved the proper texture. You can then serve it over rice, or on its own as a stew.
Give Your Own Gumbo a Go
There is no right or wrong way to make Gumbo so long as you adhere to a few rules: always use the holy trinity of Cajun and Creole cuisine (onion, celery, and bell pepper), always make your own roux from butter and flour, and always have at least one source of protein to build the dish around.
From there, recipes vary greatly. Many people in Louisiana have firmly held beliefs about what makes a great Gumbo, but there are very few actual guidelines for the dish. One of the most common variations is the meat which can generally be broken up into a few categories: chicken, sausage, chicken and sausage, seafood, and other types of game meat.
Since Louisiana has traditionally had a pretty robust Catholic population, there’s also a Gumbo variation for those abstaining from meat (as Catholics do weekly during Lent). This version is served with a plentiful base of leafy greens rather than meat; modern versions may also include a small amount of seafood, but this isn’t part of the tradition.
If you want to experiment with addition additional vegetables (like greens, or carrots) to your Gumbo, that’s not beyond the scope of the dish. So long as you cook them down until they’re soft and willing to blend with the rest of the dish, you’re still well within the bounds of Gumbo.
Gumbo is a flavorful and filling dish that echoes the rich Louisiana culture, take a little time to give yourself a taste.