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Food Origins: Gumbo

In many African languages, the word “gombo” means “okra,” making the etymology of this classic New Orleans meal easy enough.

But creating it was a bit more involved! To set the stage for gumbo, its ingredients had to be brought from all over. African slaves brought okra and the cultivation of rice to Louisiana, while German immigrants introduced the art of sausage-making. Settlers from the Canary Islands fished for shrimp, crabs and oysters, and also shared their love for cayenne pepper, ground from spicy red chilis. Whose idea was it to combine all of these? Truthfully, it could have been anyone, and unfortunately for foodies, gumbo didn’t keep a travel journal.

Like jambalaya, gumbo comes in two versions: Cajun and Creole. Cajun gumbo can be identified by its dark color: a result of the nearly black roux, or flour-and-fat base. It often features seafood or fowl, but may include sausage. By contrast, Creole gumbo involves tomatoes (seldom used in Cajun cooking) and often incorporates a lighter roux, which makes for a thicker dish. One of gumbo’s distinctive flavors comes from filé powder, a spice from the leaves of the sassafras plant. Filé can thicken gumbo when okra isn’t in season; it can also be used purely for flavor.

Not a meat-eater? Track down some gumbo z’herbes, a meatless version created for Catholics avoiding meat during Lent. Turnips, mustard greens and spinach are cooked down and strained through a sieve to make a tasty but time-consuming dish that’s hard to find in New Orleans restaurants these days.

Gumbo is a community dish, meant to be cooked in large quantities and shared. It combines the heritage of many of Louisiana’s first settlers into one seamless, delicious dish that can be modified and experimented on in countless ways! No wonder it’s Louisiana’s official state food.


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