What Is Gumbo?

Contributor
A short history of the most famous New Orleans dish

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

Gumbo is perhaps the dish that represents both Creole cuisine and New Orleans the best. It epitomizes Louisiana’s culture — a melting pot of the many different cultures that coexist within the state and have influenced its cuisine.

While it can be prepared in many ways, most typically, it begins with a dark roux that's used as a thickening, flavorful base for the stew. Traditionally, both okrah and filé powder are also added to thicken it even more. (Photo courtesy of flickr/NG71)

From there, the dish can be made with various meats like chicken and sausage, or shellfish like shrimp or crab, and vegetables like tomatoes and onions, and, of course, okra. 

The dish itself is a mixture of French, German, Italian, and African cooking traditions. While scholars are relatively uncertain of the exact origin of the food, it is widely accepted that its etymology stemmed from the word okra in West African. 

New Orleans was established in 1718 and quickly became the first French colony in Louisiana. Soon it became one of the most diverse and culturally rich environments in the United States. Germans migrated there in the beginning of the 18th century and introduced the art of sausage making.  Spaniards settled there in the middle of the 18th century and brought with them their love of spices and their fisherman abilities. By the beginning of the 19th century, most families in New Orleans purchased slaves, who brought with them okra and hot pepper plants from Africa. The combination of these cultures’ foods led to the creation of a dish bursting with savory and mouthwatering flavors. All of the immigrants brought with them new foods and spices that contributed to the development of the most iconic New Orleans dish today.

The cookbook, Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Carbell Tyree, was published in 1879 and contains the first known gumbo recipe. This gumbo was filé-based and utilized oysters, chicken, spices, and vegetables. Since then, there have been many different recipes for gumbo, which include chicken, seafood, and sausage, and are thickened by pods of okra, roux, and filé powder. There is definitely an art behind gumbo preparation, but it does allow for a lot of room for the chefs' personal taste preference. (Photo courtesy of flickr/Alessandro Guerani)

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