The Delicious Dichotomy of Gumbo
Jan 30, 2020 12:26PM
Gumbo is one of the most controversial topics of culinary discussion. Right down to the very meaning of the word, opposing ideologies maintain what is (or what should be) considered the right way to make gumbo. The dish, rooted in Louisiana culture, is reflective of America itself. What may seem like a straightforward recipe becomes a full-on representation of this country’s identity—a delicious melting pot of cultures stewed into one great dish.
Some believe gumbo to be named after the West African word for okra, ki ngombo, which supports the school of thought that gumbo is only to be made with okra. Others believe it to be named after the Choctaw word kombo which means “sassafras leaf,” known to most southerners as gumbo filé (pronounced fee-lay). This creates a foundation for those who believe gumbo should only be made with gumbo filé.
What we do know is that these ingredients were brought to the kitchen, recipes were shared, and gumbo made its debut in American culture as early as the 17th century. It was a staple dish prepared in Louisiana that crossed class and cultural barriers.
The base of this dish is the French preparation called roux (pronounced roo), also known as the one thing on which all gumbo connoisseurs will agree. This is a simple yet complex base that gives the dish its most prominent flavor.
Simple because it is only two ingredients - flour and fat. Complex both in flavor and its delicate nature which demands the cook’s full attention while preparing it - mere seconds can make or break it. Even the most seasoned chef can burn a roux.
To begin a roux, heat up the choice fat (cooking oil, olive oil, butter, lard) on a medium heat until it glistens. Sift in all-purpose flour and begin to whisk evenly into the fat. As you stir, the color will develop from white to cream, from tan to peanut butter, and then you get to the gumbo range- oak to cocoa. One thing to remember- don’t compromise the dish with a burned roux, discard and start over.
The roux acts as a thickener, although it is not the primary thickener in gumbo. Typically, a darker roux will give more complex flavor to the dish, but the more the flour is broken down, the less productive it is as a thickener.
OKRA VS. GUMBO FILÉ
Some of the more divisive opinions behind gumbo preparation depend upon the style of Louisiana cuisine on which it is based. Okra, with its West African origins, came to America most likely during the slave trade and became quickly rooted in the New Orleans cuisine. It was used as a thickener in dishes and in other as a main ingredient. Often, okra-based gumbos will have tomato added, as these two items were often paired together.
When using okra in gumbo, it is equally as important to cook it down as it is to cook down the roux. Okra is a mucilaginous plant, which means it creates a liquid binder when cooked. However, when cooked long enough, the sticky nature of the fluid in okra can be cooked off and turned into a paste.
This is what they mean when they say okra-based. Not that you will ‘see’ okra in the gumbo, but that it is an integral part in making the base of the dish.
The solitary use of gumbo filé was more commonly seen in Cajun dishes, which was heavily influenced by Native American cuisine. Gumbo filé adds an earthiness to the dish and acts as a thickener similar to okra but not as powerful.
Gumbo that uses only filé and no okra will have a thinner base liquid. This is more common in meat gumbos, like chicken and sausage, or duck and sausage.
Historically, gumbo filé was used as a substitute binder when okra was not in season, because it was easier to dry, grind, and store gumbo file than okra pods. Both items can be found at the grocery store these days, although industry standards have allowed gumbo filé to be “cut” with sage as it can become pricey per pound. (100% pure gumbo filé retails anywhere from $15-20/lb. Ground sage is anywhere from $6-9/lb.) Be sure to read the label when purchasing gumbo filé, or ask your local spice merchant if their filé is pure.
CAJUN VS. CREOLE
This is where you begin to see the players take sides. Louisiana has some of the greatest food, however gumbo from Lafayette is tremendously different than New Orleans. This is because there are two main styles of cooking gumbo - Cajun vs. Creole.
Typically, a Cajun gumbo is one thickened with a dark roux and filé. This is a thinner style of gumbo and more prominent in the Galveston food scene. Whereas a Creole gumbo is made with a dark roux but is thickened with Okra and has the presence of tomato.
Creole gumbo is typically be found in New Orleans while Cajun Gumbo is more likely to appear West of Bayou Lafourche. New Orleans famous Chef Paul Prudhomme intertwined Cajun and Creole philosophies, which is why you are more likely to see both gumbo filé and okra both used in gumbo today.
PROTEINS AND GUMBO Z’HERBES
The beauty of gumbo is not the roux, or even the presence of okra and how much it is cooked down, but the freedom of using any protein (or none) in the dish. Gumbo Z’Herbes is a vegan, plant-based gumbo comprised literally of a melting pot of greens cooked down over an extended period of time and served over rice.
This version of gumbo was made popular by the Catholic Religion and consumed during Lenten on Holy Friday, a day when followers of the faith abstain from meat products.
The secret to making a great Creole-style seafood gumbo truly relies on the process in which items are added to the pot. In any recipe, it is important to gather and prep all ingredients ahead of time. This will ensure that everything is on hand and ready to be added. Save the ends of the vegetables and shrimp shells to create the stock.
Begin with cooking down the okra, which can take as long as, if not longer, than your roux. Stir frequently to ensure the okra does not stick to the bottom of the pot, and periodically add water to help break down the okra. When it’s done, it will look like a paste. Set aside.
Begin making the roux by whisking the flour and fat constantly over medium heat. As soon as the color and sweet smell of perfect gumbo roux is right, mix in the onion, celery, and bell pepper. This process opens up your aromatics while simultaneously cooling down your roux and stopping it from continuing to get darker.
Add Tomato sauce and okra paste and mix well. Combine with equal parts stock and water by slowly adding water to the roux and paste mixture, making sure the mixture is thoroughly incorporated. Add seasoning, gumbo filé and bay leaves and bring to a boil, stirring periodically. Let cook on a rolling boil for a minimum of four hours.
Add in protein at any point. Some prefer the protein to be cooked down completely, while others like to see it. This is optional, although there is a certain sweetness that shrimp and crab will add to the dish when cooked down with the gumbo.
One secret that everyone should know: Let gumbo sit a day before consuming. The chemical reaction that happens when gumbo cools down and is heated back up does something magical to the dish that makes it infinitely better than the day before. It is best served a day later with a scoop of rice, corn mash/cornbread, or potato salad.
Next time you grab a bowl of gumbo at your favorite spot on the island, think about what goes into making it and savor every bite. It is a culinary masterpiece that is truly All American.
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Concetta Maceo-Sims is a 3rd generation Galvestonian with a colorful family history in the food and entertainment industry. She works aside her father at Maceo Spice & Import Company at 2706 Market Street where she develops new recipes, caters, and maintains the shop. She credits her elders for developing her palate and love for cooking, as she grew up observing them in their element. Luckily, she picked up their kitchen secrets and is willing to share them!