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What Is Gumbo?
Gumbo is a thick, flavorful stew from southern Louisiana. There are many different styles of gumbo, from gumbo z'herbes to sausage gumbo, seafood gumbo, and chicken gumbo, but almost all gumbos feature okra. In fact, the Bantu word for okra, ki ngombo, or gombo for short, is likely the origin of the Creole word “gumbo.” Gumbo is a prime example of the intersection of West African, Native American, and French culinary traditions: Okra stew is a common West African meal; Choctaw Native Americans often ate boiled fish and used sassafras leaves to thicken their food; and French-style roux provides an additional thickener. The precise history of gumbo is as murky as the stew itself, but gumbo recipes began to appear in New Orleans cookbooks at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
What Does Gumbo Taste Like?
Gumbo is a rich, flavorful stew that combines the unique flavors and textures of okra (bittersweet with a slimy texture) and/or sassafras leaves (which taste like root beer) with a variety of meat options. The exact flavor of any given gumbo depends on its ingredients: Seafood is one popular option, while boneless skinless chicken breast and Andouille sausage is another. Most gumbos however, have a sweetness from the Holy Trinity, a combination of onion, bell pepper, and celery used to flavor a soup base.
5 Essential Gumbo Ingredients
There's more than one way to make gumbo, but the essential gumbo ingredients are:
- The Holy Trinity: The Cajun Holy Trinity recipe calls for one part white onion, one part green bell pepper, and one part celery. Some recipes and preparations also include green onion or shallots, parsley, and garlic—which is sometimes referred to as adding “the pope.”
- Roux: Dark roux is made by whisking together flour and fat in a saucepan on the stovetop until very dark brown, about 10 minutes. Dark roux is one of two thickening agents in gumbo.
- Okra: Okra serves as a second thickener in gumbo. That slime is actually mucilage, a gelatinous substance that helps the seedpod retain water. Some find okra’s gumminess unpleasant, while others crave its slippery texture. Filé powder, made from ground, dried sassafras leaves, can replace okra as a thickening agent. (Kombo, the Choctaw word for sassafras, is a potential origin of the name “gumbo.”)
- Meat: Gumbo is an adaptable recipe that can feature many kinds of meat. Some of the most popular proteins include Andouille sausage, crawfish, crab meat, shrimp, fish, boneless chicken breasts, or bone-in chicken thighs. If you're vegetarian, don't fear: gumbo z'herbes, traditionally eaten during Lent, is meat-free and instead features a variety of leafy greens and herbs.
- Tomatoes: Cajun gumbo and gumbo made with filé powder typically omits tomatoes, while Creole gumbos containing okra may include tomatoes.
Classic Creole Gumbo Recipe
Prep Time20 min
Total Time1 hr 36 min
Cook Time1 hr 16 min
- ¼ cup butter
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1 large green bell pepper, stemmed, deveined, and chopped
- 1 celery stalk, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 plum tomatoes, diced
- 10 ounces okra, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick pieces
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ pound Andouille sausage or another smoked sausage
- 4–6 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade or low-sodium
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
- ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley, to garnish
- Cooked white rice, to serve
- Hot sauce, to serve
- Make a dark roux. In a large cast-iron Dutch oven over medium heat, melt butter, combine with flour, and whisk until the roux thickens and turns a dark brown color (almost burnt), about 10 minutes.
- Reduce to medium-low heat and add the onion, bell pepper, and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute longer.
- Add diced tomatoes, okra, bay leaves, salt, cayenne pepper, and black pepper, and cook until vegetables have softened, about 5 more minutes.
- Add sausage and chicken stock and increase to medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer until flavors have melded, about 45 minutes, adding more chicken broth if necessary.
- Add shrimp and continue to simmer until pink, about 10 more minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve hot with cooked white rice and hot sauce.
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