Gumbo is to Louisiana like pastrami is to New York. This slightly spicy, savory, rich dish is the epitome of Creole cooking - except for the fact that there are actually many versions, each with its own cultural twist. The role that gumbo has served in Louisiana cooking simply can't be underestimated as it's one of the most popular dishes from the region, with jambalaya comes in at a close second. That classic gumbo flavor, spawning from a singular spice that has also become synonymous with the region, is something that both locals and visitors can't get enough of. It's addicting, in a sense, while also being unbelievably satisfying on nearly every level.
The story of how gumbo became one of Louisiana's - and, by extension, New Orlean's - finest comfort food dishes is one that's full of adventure. With that being said, it's also a complex history that has many moving parts, which we'll try to rehash as best we can. One simply can't visit the state of Louisiana without trying a steaming hot bowl of gumbo or without knowing its history, especially when it's so ingrained in the state's culture and tradition.
Generation Upon Generation Has Had Their Own Gumbo Recipe
Gumbo is as unique to each family as a fingerprint is to a person and that's no exaggeration. Chances are that if you ask anyone in Louisiana how they learned how to make the iconic dish, they'll tell you exactly who they learned it from and when, whether it was a family member or a close friend. The distinction between family recipes is why each bowl of gumbo tastes slightly different with none being better than the other, but each one sporting its own unique flavor profile. The most popular style of gumbo is referred to as 'New Orleans-style' which is a classic Creole gumbo. The word gumbo, for anyone who doesn't know, comes from the West African word for okra, which is 'gombo,' and it's a popular ingredient in the stew-like dish.
The process of adding okra to gumbo isn't one that happened by happenstance or was done for no reason; okra's composition and its texture as it cooks down lends itself well to stews and soups. Okra tends to get a bit slimy - for lack of a better word - as it breaks down, which also helps to thicken gumbo and give it a stick-to-your-ribs, wholesome texture.
The True Origin Of Gumbo
The dish undoubtedly has African roots and it was only after making its way to America that it was influenced by many other cultures, which is why there are so many versions of the stew. Two of the most influential forces imposed on the original gumbo came from French and Creole culture; while enslaved Africans were working side-by-side in the kitchen with the mistresses of a household, the exchange of flavors and styles soon merged into the fusion of the gumbo we know today, according to Eater. Many people consider gumbo's history to be a dark one, with the dish becoming a fused staple during some of the darkest times in the country, specifically in Louisiana.
The base of the dish, which is called a roux - a cooked mixture of flour and fat, such as butter or oil - was strictly influenced by French and Creole cultures. The roux is responsible for thickening the gumbo even further and the darker the roux gets as it's allowed to cook more, the deeper and richer the flavor will be when it's finished. There's another influence that should not be forgotten when speaking of gumbo, though, and that is of the Native Americans. Traditionally, the dish was made with gumbo filé, which was powdered sassafras. This spice was brought forth by the Choctaw tribe who also had a hand in shaping this dish due to the unique and bold spice that helped to give it its signature flavor.
It's probably safe to say that gumbo hasn't evolved much over the years which is why so many people treasure it. Its traditional, diverse, and, at times, tragic, roots are ingrained in each recipe and flavor. Today, the stew is most commonly made with seafood but has been adapted to hold other meats and has even been created in vegetarian form. However, for those visiting Louisiana, more often than not, it's the New Orleans style, or Creole, version that can be found the easiest. This is also the most commonly served in restaurants, as well.