Into The Gumbo Pot: Get To Know The Diamond Of Creole Cuisine

An unfortunate consequence of capitalism is that American food doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. Mile-high burgers and deep-fried everything may be quintessentially ‘American’, but a long and rich food history is all too often overshadowed by the golden arches. One such underrepresented gem is the Creole food of New Orleans and Louisiana. The best place to get acquainted with the cuisine is to start with its piece de resistance – gumbo.

At its simplest, gumbo is a stew made with a variety of meats, seafood, vegetables and herbs. In reality, it’s so much more complicated than that. It can be thin or viscous, it can contain any combination of proteins that you can imagine. It could use okra, sassafras, or a roux as a thickening agent or even all three. Every chef has their unique take and every gumbo pot is like a fingerprint of its maker. 

It’s often represented as a take on French bouillabaisse, but that’s an erroneous attribution, probably due to Louisiana’s large French migrant population and the vague similarity of their ingredients and consistency. The real ownership of gumbo belongs to the African American communities in the south, particularly those of West African descent. Okra is the heart of most gumbos and the ingredient was first brought into the states on slave ships. Ki Ngombo is the word for okra in many West African languages or ‘gombo’ for short. So right from the name to the base ingredient, the African stake in gumbo runs deep.

Though Louisiana is the font of the gumbo conversation, during the colonial era and the early 19th century, similar okra-based stews and soups were commonly found in states where enslaved Africans and their descendants lived. Tracing the original recipe is next to impossible since no records or cookbooks from the African American community existed until after the Civil War, but in the early 19th century recipes started to appear in the writings of white authors identifying it as a dish of West Indian origin.

In the mid-19th century, this association shifted from the West Indies to New Orleans, perhaps thanks to the warm welcome it received from cooks and diners across Louisiana and by the 1830s, it was even making appearances in daily newspapers as a well-loved local dish. And as popularity grew, so did the list of ingredients. The ingredients are versatile but a popular choice is Andouille sausage the most common protein was chicken and later prawns and other shellfish.

One ingredient that does cause controversy is the use of tomatoes. Some argue that the addition of tomatoes pushes the dish more towards Cajun-style cooking rather than Creole and therefore compromises the authenticity of the dish. But like so much of gumbo etiquette, both exist and both versions are equally valid. In the end, what goes into a gumbo is so tied to the choices of the chef and the evolution from base to plating is a journey through culture and history.