What Goes into Gumbo
Gumbo is one of the most famous dishes to result from Louisiana's shared Creole-Cajun heritage. As varied as the recipes can be, there are a few ingredients that give the dish its identity as gumbo. Apart from good homemade stock, the first is the "holy trinity" used extensively in both cooking traditions: celery, onions, and green peppers.
The Pot Thickens
Most gumbos use two distinctive ingredients to thicken and flavor them: roux and either okra or filé powder.
- Roux is a cooked mixture of equal parts flour and fat. The fat in the roux can be butter, oil, bacon grease, or lard.
- Roux can range in color from white to brown to black, depending on how long it's cooked. The darker the color of the roux, the deeper the flavor.
- Cajun gumbos tend to use very dark roux, usually made with oil or pork fat, whereas Creole gumbos might favor the more delicate flavor of a light roux made with butter.
The second thickener in a pot of gumbo can be either okra or filé (FEE-lay) powder.
- Okra is a green pod-like vegetable native to Africa. It was brought to Creole households by African slaves who worked on the wealthy planters' estates. In Umbundu (a language spoken in Angola, where many Southern slaves came from) the word for okra is ochingombo, which was eventually abridged to "gombo."
- Filé powder is made of ground sassafras leaves, native to the southern U.S. Filé was introduced to Cajun settlers by the Choctaw Indians who helped the settlers survive in the wilderness. And the Choctaw word for sassafras? Kombo.
A Few Gumbo Rules
Okra and filé powder are rarely used in the same batch of gumbo; some cooks think that using both will make the gumbo too thick, while others assert that the two flavors "cancel each other out."
- If you're using okra, it should be cooked for long enough that it loses its slimy texture, about 45 minutes.
- Filé powder, on the other hand, should not be added until the very end of cooking; boiling filé will cause the whole pot of gumbo to become stringy and gummy.
- You can also wait to add the filé to each individual bowl of gumbo (about ¼ teaspoon stirred into each bowl). This is a handy method to use if you plan on having leftovers to reheat later.
The Gumbo Grab-Bag
Common flavorings include cayenne pepper and black pepper, dry mustard, paprika, sage, cumin, bay leaves, thyme, and parsley. You can also find pre-mixed Cajun seasoning blends at most grocery stores.
Gumbo can be a veritable grab-bag of ingredients, including sausage--especially Andouille and chaurice, tasso (cured pork shoulder), crawfish, crab, shrimp, oysters, chicken, duck, rabbit, or other game. Mirlitons (also known as chayote squash) sometimes show up in gumbo, as do tomatoes, depending upon the cook's preference.
Gumbo: Cajun or Creole?
The ingredients and cooking techniques involved come from a remarkable array of cultures and traditions--all of which have combined over the centuries to create a uniquely American story.
Creoles descended from the wealthy French and Spanish colonists who settled in southern Louisiana.
- "Creole" also includes the African and Caribbean heritage of the region.
- Creole cuisine was born in upper-class households and still carries the reputation of being more refined and fancy, and of using more expensive ingredients, than Cajun cooking.
Cajuns are the descendents of French colonists who settled in Acadia (modern-day Nova Scotia).
- The Acadians were driven out of Canada in the 1750s and many fled to southern Louisiana.
- They survived with the help of Choctaw Indians who taught them how to hunt and fish and forage.
- Cajun (shortened from "Acadian") cuisine was developed by these hardy people who made do with whatever they could grow or hunt in the bayous and prairies of Louisiana.
- Traditional Cajun dishes are cooked in one pot--a throwback to when the settlers had no stoves and did their cooking over open fires.