What Is Gumbo?
Plus, our best gumbo recipes.
By Layla Khoury-Hanold for Food Network Kitchen
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a contributor at Food Network.
If you think of gumbo as synonymous with Louisiana, you’re right to. This soul-satisfying stew-and-rice dish originated in the Bayou State, but it’s a dish with a complex history that boasts multiple variations. So, what exactly is gumbo and what’s in it? And what’s the difference between gumbo and jambalaya, another famous Louisiana dish? Here, we answer your burning gumbo questions and share our best gumbo recipes.
What Is Gumbo?
Gumbo is a hearty stew that’s served hot over rice. Gumbo can be made with numerous combinations of fresh or smoked sausage, meat, seafood, and/or vegetables. Gumbo is a symbol of Louisiana cuisine, but its origins are varied and its history complex. As author Toni Tipton-Martin explains in Jubilee, “The word gumbo comes from gombo, the word in several West African languages for okra, which may explain why early renditions of the thick, aromatic stew contained okra, along with vegetables, meat, or seafood.” Other historians posit that gumbo has roots in Choctaw stew; some recipes still call for Native American filé powder, made from dried and ground leaves of sassafras trees, to thicken and flavor the stew. Still others believe that French influence factors in and that gumbo is a derivation of bouillabaisse, a Provencal fish stew. Later, gumbo recipes started to incorporate French and Creole influence by making a roux to thicken the dish.
Gumbo vs. Jambalaya
Gumbo and jambalaya are both dishes with Louisiana roots and Creole and Cajun heritage. But the main difference comes down to the rice. Whereas gumbo is a hearty stew that’s served over rice, jambalaya is a protein-and-vegetable-based stew in which ingredients are cooked with the rice. As Tipton-Martin cites in Jubilee, quoting from Heidi Haughy Cusick’s Soul and Spice: African Cooking in the Americas, “The name jambalaya is pure Louisiana Creole: jamb comes from the French word for ham, ala is French or Acadian and means ‘of’ or ‘with,’ and ya is an African word for rice.”
Gumbo also often relies on making a roux to thicken the sauce, whereas jambalaya doesn’t utilize a roux. Just as there are different types of gumbo depending on historical origins, ingredient availability and family recipes, there are different types of jambalayas. Creole jambalaya, aka red jambalaya, is made with tomatoes. Cajun jambalaya, or brown jambalaya, does not contain tomatoes. Gumbo and jambalaya both rely on a mirepoix of finely diced onions, peppers and celery, which is commonly referred to as “the holy trinity.” Both gumbo and jambalaya may contain different combinations of seafood, fresh or smoked sausages (like andouille), ham, poultry, game, other meats and vegetables.
What Is In Gumbo?
Gumbo is a hearty stew made from combinations of seafood, meat (such as andouille, chicken and ham) or vegetables that’s served hot over cooked rice. Gumbo can be thickened with okra, file, or a roux, a French and Creole method of cooking equal parts flour and fat. There are different schools of thought on how long the roux should be cooked, and therefore how dark it gets.
Gumbo can be made with near-endless protein combinations. Two well-known types of gumbo are seafood gumbo, which often includes shrimp, oysters and crabs, and chicken-and-sausage gumbo, made with andouille sausage. Okra gumbo utilizes okra to thicken the stew; common varieties include shrimp-and-okra or chicken-and-okra gumbo. Gumbo z’herbes, also called green gumbo, is made with a variety of greens and vegetables. It is often vegetarian and traditionally served during Lent in Louisiana’s Catholic communities, but it can also be made using ham, sausage or meat-based stock. At her New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, the late chef Leah Chase (aka “Queen of Creole Cuisine”) made her gumbo z’herbes with collard, mustard, and turnip greens, spinach, romaine, green cabbage, and beet and carrot tops, among other ingredients.
Many gumbo recipes call for making a roux, which is responsible for either thickening the stew or adding a creamy texture and a deep toasty flavor. A roux is made by cooking equal parts flour and fat, such as butter, oil, lard, rendered fat such as bacon, or pan drippings, which creates an extra flavorful roux. Many gumbo recipes call for a dark roux, which imparts more flavor but doesn’t thicken the stew as much. To learn more about the different types of roux and how to make them, check out our How to Make a Roux guide.
Recipes for Gumbo
This hearty, feeds-a-crowd gumbo features both meat and seafood, including sausage, chicken cooked in sausage drippings, and tender shrimp. Gumbo filé, a powder made from dried and ground sassafras tree leaves, is used to thicken and season the stew.
To make the roux for this classic gumbo, flour is cooked in andouille and chicken drippings until light golden brown. It cooks down further with the holy trinity mirepoix, okra and garlic, yielding a roux that strikes a balance between flavoring and thickening agent.
Black eyed peas and kale (or Swiss chard) anchor this hearty vegetarian gumbo. It achieves a savory depth thanks to a combination of soy sauce, smoked paprika and finely chopped onions, green peppers and celery (aka the holy trinity).
This chicken-based gumbo riff utilizes chicken drippings cooked in flour to create a dark roux that imparts a savory, toasty depth of flavor and a creamy texture. Don’t be afraid to cook the roux awhile, say 12 to 15 minutes, when it’ll start to smell like roasted peanuts.
It takes a little extra prep work, but this big batch gumbo pays dividends in soul-satisfying suppers, especially if you freeze extras in easy-to-thaw-portions. In addition to andouille sausage, this gumbo features okra, which helps thicken the soup.
This short-cut gumbo recipe skips the time-consuming roux step and pulls in a small amount of rice that thickens the stew as it cooks low and slow with the other ingredients, including a Cajun spice blend. Serve over hot rice or with crusty bread for dipping and mopping.