The origins of gumbo
Gumbo is a dish that it so closely assimilated with Louisiana in the American South that it is difficult to imagine it originally came from Africa. However, it is closely related. Indeed, it even gets its name from ki-ngombo or ochinggômbo, West African words for Okra
In its original form, Gumbo would have been made from Okra by African slaves. Okra (or ladies’ fingers as it is known in many European countries) is a vegetable the ensalved people brought with them from West Africa. It is an edible green pod with mucilaginous properties. These means it can be used to provide a vegetable element to dishes, but also to thicken them
The enslaved people would have used Okra to make one pot stews. This was a method of cooking they used in Africa. They may have made Gumbos with or without meat or seafood, but one ingredient was certainly not going to be left out. That ingredient was of course Chillies. Gumbo just wouldn’t have been Gumbo without them!
While the original Gumbo dish may have come from Africa, the dish is fact fusion food. Besides its West African origin, it has French, Spanish, Caribbean, and even Italian influences. Consequently, there is no one all inclusive version of Gumbo. It depends on the availability of ingredients and the region the Gumbo comes from. Areas closer to the coast traditionally have their Gumbos containing seafood like prawns, oysters and fish, while in areas more inland, Gumbos will be made with chicken and sausage.
Let’s make Gumbo
An authentic recipe
Onions, bell peppers and celery are essential ingredients for Gumbo. These three ingredients are known as the trinity. They are a common thread that runs through most (indeed, probably all) Gumbos in Louisiana. Okra of course is another essential ingredient, although some versions of Gumbo (particularly Cajun Gumbo) get thickened by making a roux with wheat flour and butter.
The Gumbo I am making today is typical of a gumbo that would have (and still is) found in areas closer to the coast of Louisiana. To make it, I needed one large onion, one Bell pepper, and two stalks of celery. Over and above that, I need two cloves of garlic, one pound (450 grams) of Okra, one pound (450 grams) of prawns, half a pound (225 grams) of smoked sausages (I used Kielbasa, but see note), one pound (450 grams) of fish (I am using cod, but any firm fleshed fish will do), one cup of vegetable oil, four cups of chicken stock, one bay
The first thing I needed to do was my preparation. I cut the stalks off the Okra and cut them into three quarter inch (19 mm) slices. I then peeled the onion and chopped it into quarter inch (6mm) dice. Next, I removed the stalk and pith from the green pepper and cut it into half inch (12mm) slices. The Chillies had their stalks removed and were chopped into half inch (6mm) bits. What I now needed to do was peel the garlic and chop it finely. After that, I cut the fish and sausage into bite-sized chunks, and then placed them back into the refrigerator. All that remained for my preparation was to dice the celery into half inch pieces (6mm)
The first step in cooking the Gumbo was to add the oil to a skillet and bring it to a medium heat. Next, I added half the Okra to the oil and let it cook until it started popping (about one to two minutes). I then removed the fried Okra from the skillet (using a slotted metal spoon) and kept it to one side. Next, I added the remaining Okra to the pan and cooked that for about a minute or so until it started popping. This was also then removed from the heat and kept to one side
Adding the trinity
After this, the trinity ingredients were added to the pan and fried until they started becoming translucent. Next to go in was the Chillies and the Cajun seasoning. I stirred the skillet for a minute, and then reintroduced the fried okra. I then added the tomato paste, bay leaf, and the sausages, and stirred until everything was combined.
The next step was to add the chicken stock and turn up the heat until the mixture started boiling. Once it reached that point, I turned down the heat until all I had was a slow simmer. I let the Gumbo simmer for about forty-five minutes, and then added the prawns and fish. After about five minutes, the fish and the prawns had cooked through, and I was ready to serve
You may have noted that I used fresh Chillies. In Louisiana, a Gumbo would not usually be made in this way. Normally pungency will be added by using hot sauce like Tabasco and/or cayenne pepper. However, I like the taste that fresh Chillies add to the dish, and as I see it, I can always add hot sauce later if I need to
So how did the Gumbo taste?
It was out of this world. This is soul food of the highest degree. If you need a dish to warm you up on a cold winter night, I have no hesitation in recommending making it. Pair it with an off dry white wine like off-dry Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, or Pinot Gris and you will be in soul food heaven
What more, it’s so easy to stretch this dish to feed unexpected guests. I didn’t serve it with rice, which is one of the traditional ways of serving Gumbo. I wanted the dish to be carb friendly and gluten free. However, if you don’t have these constraints, it’s definitely the way to go! Boil some rice, ladle the gumbo into a bowl, add a spoonful or two of rice into the centre of the bowl, and you are flying!
Adding sausage to Gumbo is definitely from the influence that the French had on the dish. Traditional Gumbo is made with Andouille sausage. If you cannot find it, Kielbasa or any other smoked cooked sausage will do. Any example is Matteson’s smoked sausage.It is a smoked sausage found in almost every supermarket in the United Kingdom. Other sausages like smoked frankfurters, chouriço and bockwurst will also work. The idea is to introduce an element of smokiness to the dish
jeffreyw / CC BY 2.0 / via Wikimedia Commons