Where the heck did Gumbo come from?
The word “Gumbo” is the African term for Okra…Derived from various Bantu dialects (Southern & Central Africa). The word is one of very few African language words brought over by slaves, which have entered the English language.
Today, gumbo is, generally, a southern U.S. regional term for stew-like dishes with meat or seafood, tomatoes and sweet bell peppers, but more specifically it is a Créole dish whose characteristic ingredients are Okra and Filé Powder (although some gumbos do not have okra, and are thickened only with filé powder after removing from the heat).
Okra has a mucilaginous (moist and sticky) quality, which thickens and gives body to gumbo. Most southerners will tell you, “If it ain’t got okra, it ain’t gumbo!” Créole Gumbo is a stew-like dish made with brown roux, okra, filé powder, onions, green peppers, tomatoes and seafood, chicken and/or meat. Gumbo has an incomparably rich flavor and texture, and derives from the cooking traditions of the French, Spanish, Indian, and African residents of the area.
Ingredients can vary widely (there are literally hundreds of different gumbos). Seafood (especially shrimp) is common to many Gumbos, and there is a special made with herbs and greens (usually seven or more) such as collard greens, mustard greens, and spinach, which was traditionally served on Good Friday.
Traditional Gumbo is a derivation of the French stew called Bouillabaisse, and while many of the ingredients are the same, there is no mistaking Gumbo for its ancestor. There is the East coast version, which is normally red, due to the Tomatoes; and the green tinged Gumbo (aka, “Dirty Water”), which is what I grew up with. Though, quiet as it’s kept, I don’t like Gumbo (I can make it like a champ, I just don’t eat it), I swear up and down that the first person to make it, cleaned out their ice box, and served the resulting stew over their last little bit of steamed rice. Gumbo should never be over spiced; it should have a subtle flavor. Gumbo is always served with rice.
OK, enough information from the rookies, now it’s time to hear from the real deal Gumbo maker, my mother, Rita, who is from the heart of Louisiana. Gumbo is a family meal (it is called a family meal, because it takes a whole family to put it together), made in the traditional Créole style with or without Okra. That’s right, you can skip the Okra, but you definitely have to make sure it’s flavored with Celery, Onion, Italian Parsley, King Crab Legs, Snow Crab Legs and Shoulders Shrimp (Baby Bay, dried and jumbo), Chicken, and Sausage. Now, the secret to authentic, lip smackin’, fight-your-Momma-for-the last-bowl, Gumbo is the Roux. If your Roux is not right, your Gumbo is nothing more than Seafood Soup. Gumbo is generally made in the cooler seasons, but the most popular day in America to make Gumbo is New Year’s Day. Mom’s mise-en-place usually takes about 3 days; she gets up at 4am to start her prep, and you can tell the moment she blends all the ingredients together, because the scent fills her house…And a line forms around her block. The French may have invented Bouillabaisse, but my Mother took it to a whole new level.