All About Gumbo

A favorite example of the meeting of French Acadian [‘Cajun’], Native American and West African cultures in New Orleans, is Gumbo.

Gumbo is a stew that probably originated in southern Louisiana in the 1700s. It consists of flavorful stock, meat or shellfish, a thickener, and seasoning vegetables, which can include celery, bell peppers, and onions. Gumbo is often categorized by the type of thickener used: the African vegetable okra, the Choctaw spice Gumbo Filé Powder, or a roux, the French base made of flour and fat.

The dish likely gets its name from the West African Bantu word for okra (ki ngombo), or the Choctaw Indian word for the sassafrass leaf, file (read more about Gumbo Filé Powder). Either way, gumbo is a rich dish with broad cultural origins: The dish combines French, Spanish, German, West African, and Choctaw ingredients and culinary practices.

For post-Mardi Gras extra credit: When Catholics were expected to abstain from eating meat during Lent, a meatless kind of gumbo, known as gumbo z’herbes (literally “gumbo with herbs”), was traditionally served. This variety combined cooked greens like turnips, mustard greens, and spinach in place of the meat and seafood in the recipe. The greens were cooked and strained and made a thick, green liquid base for the gumbo to which spices and vegetables were added. As Lenten restrictions have waned, the dishes’ popularity has as well.