“What is New Orleans? New Orleans is Creole gumbo, filé gumbo, cowan gumbo, chicken gumbo, smoked sausage gumbo, hot sausage gumbo, onion gumbo.” Kermit Ruffins, New Orleans vocalist and trumpeter
In New Orleans gumbo is THE food, present on the tables of both rich and poor, in the country and city and on every restaurant menu (there are even restaurants dedicated to the many forms of gumbo). It’s one of those interesting dishes where different cultures have, over time added their own touches, helping it evolve to become one of the most celebrated dishes of the South. Trying to decipher it’s exact origins and additions is practically impossible but what is clear is that the name is likely to have originated from the West African Bantu name for okra (ki-ngombo) as it is thought that the original thickener for the stew was okra. These days it can be okra, it can be a dark ‘brick’ coloured roux, or it can be sassafras powder, (as with mine, it can be all three, because you simply can’t decide which incredible flavour to omit).
For those of you who have taken a dislike to the slightly slimy nature of okra, fear not, it is cooked within an inch of its life and the slime count is zero. (If this is an issue in your Indian cooking, roll the chopped okra in some amchur – dried mango powder and this helps stop the slime, which is good news because okra is really super good for you).
Sassafras or filé powder can be tricky to get hold of, but if you’re interested in exciting herbs and spices, you can buy it from the good folks at Spice and Tea exchange, (I also recommend their Backwoods hickory rub for the upcoming BBQ season).
Making the kind of roux used in gumbo and many New Orleans dishes is virtually considered an art form, yes you must watch and stir like a hawk, but as long as you are attentive and have your holy trinity of green pepper, celery and onion already chopped, there is no reason why you can’t nail this roux.
The addition of roux in the cuisine of Louisiana is of course French in origin, I’d wager a guess that the addition of paprika in CREOLE seasoning is a Spanish addition, alongside thyme. Creole is the name attributed to cuisine in this area that is French and Spanish in origin – historically within the cities. In the opposing camp, CAJUN (a word derived of ‘Arcadian’) gumbo contains Andouille or smoked sausage a German influence originating along the German coast of Louisiana. The Arcadians were French settlers in Canada, many of whom were deported by the English during the British conquest of Arcadia in1710, many ended up settling in the countryside and bayou areas of Louisiana and formed its vibrant culture. Their gumbo typically contains more wild meats, frogs, rabbit, duck and the like, and was not historically thickened by roux, but by okra or sassafras powder.
So you can see how this dish has come together over time, (and also how I have finally managed to establish a competent level of world history – by getting to the bottom of all the dishes I cook and discover). You can also see how Kermit Ruffins (the musician quoted at the top) is saying far more than at first glance would suggest. New Orleans IS characterized by its gumbos but the gumbos represent much more than a beloved dish, it is a bowl full of history, an edible symbol of different cultures united in a glorious melting pot of flavour.
If you can’t get to New Orleans, this recipe is light enough to be a perfect Spring dish – almost more soup than stew really, and gumbo is forgiving, don’t worry if you don’t have all the ingredients, change them to your taste, use seafood instead of chicken and sausage if you like…make it your own.
Smoked sausage and chicken gumbo – serves 6
60g of salted butter or 2 tbsp vegetable oil
60g plain white flour
1 onion – chopped
2 green peppers de-seeded and chopped
3 sticks of celery – chopped
100g okra – chopped
4 cloves of garlic – finely chopped
A good handful of flat leaf parsley
2 bay leaves
200g smoked Andouille sausage or Kilbasa (chorizo won’t do here)
2 chicken thighs on the bone/ 2 chicken breasts – skin removed
OR substitute the sausage and chicken for the equivalent amount of seafood
1 litre of chicken stock (use fish stock if you make a seafood version)
300g basmati rice
1 heaped tbsp CREOLE seasoning
1 heaped tbsp ground sassafras powder/ file powder
1 tsp dried thyme
hot sauce to taste
sea salt to taste
- Heat a large saucepan and melt the butter, add the flour and stir together over a medium heat.
- Stir and cook the roux until it’s the colour of brown brick – you might think it’s about to burn – it is so now immediately put in your green peppers, celery and onion.
- Cook them in the roux for 5 minutes until softened, add the garlic, cook for a further minute then add the Creole seasoning, dried thyme, bay leaves and okra.
- Stir together and add the sausage, chicken, stock and a good pinch of salt
- Cook the rice now.
- Simmer until the chicken is cooked the remove the chicken. Taste and adjust the seasoning, add hot sauce to taste, add the sassafras powder and shred the chicken.
- Add the chicken back to the pot and simmer until the okra and vegetables have virtually broken down.
- Serve with a spoonful of rice and a sprinkle of parsley (and more hot sauce to be authentic)