Tomorrow 12th of October is national gumbo day in the US. I’ve had gumbo quite a few times (and love it) but I had never cooked it. When I saw that a whole day dedicated to it was coming, I knew I had found the perfect excuse to learn how to make it.
One of the things I love about gumbo is how international it is. I am Spanish and my husband is West African, and it tastes just like the food we both grew up with, my UK-born kids thought it was a chunky gravy.
It is a dish typical of the South of the US, but because of its roots it feels familiar to people all over the world. It is basically a mix of stews from West Africa, France and the Choctaw (Native American culture for those who’ve never heard the word before), with some German, Spanish and Filipino influences thrown in as well.
Gumbo is basically peasant food: cheap, easy, very tasty, filling and made to feed a crowd. Luckily, it freezes great! It’s a great dish to cook when you’re running low on supplies or need to save some money, but you still want great food.
There are 2 ways to classify gumbo: by origin and by thickener.
If we go by origin, we can find Creole and Cajun versions. As a person with not too much knowledge about American local cuisines I always assumed those two were interchangeable. Boy, was I wrong! Learn from my experience and don’t piss off the folk from the South by mixing them up!
Creole gumbo usually has shellfish, tomato and is thickened with either a dark roux or file powder. Cajun gumbo can have shellfish or fowl and is thickened with a dark roux. Of course there are as many variations as there are Southern grandmas outs there, but from what I could gather those are the ‘purist’ definitions.
Now, if we talk about thickeners there are 3 kinds: okra, roux and file powder. Okra and roux (basically a fat and flour) and both pretty self-explanatory, file powder is a different thing. It can also be called gumbo powder or gumbo file, and it is sassafras leaves powder. It has an earthy green flavour and shouldn’t be cooked too long or it becomes stringy. It can be hard to find outside of the whole gumbo region, but Amazon is your friend. Thickeners can be mixed if wanted, and often are (see Southern grandmas point above).
There is also a vegetarian gumbo: gumbo z’herbes. It came to be when Catholics wanted to eat gumbo during lent but they weren’t allowed to have meat. They basically followed the same recipe but replaced the meat with greens, usually turnip greens, mustard greens and spinach. They are cooked for a long time until they become mushy and might even be strained after.
Making gumbo only takes a few simple steps.
You first need a flavour base, in the case of gumbo it’s always the holy trinity: a mix of bell peppers, onions and celery. Chop and saute in a bit of oil.
Add the okra or roux, if using them. Okra you just put in the pan or pot. For a roux you need to add some plain flour and cook it for a few minutes. The longer you cook the flour the darker it will be, that means that it will have better flavour but not thicken as much. It’s up to each person to decide what they prefer. If you are using file powder, don’t add it yet.
Add additional vegetables and stock. If you are adding any vegetables (like greens for a gumbo z’herbes or anything else you like) add them now. Allow them to boil until almost soft.
Now add the proteins. Traditionally you would add the meat (not shellfish, that goes almost last), vegetarian and vegan proteins should go in now as well. Tofu, mock meats, seitan or beans would be great. Allow everything to come to a boil and then…
Simmer for up to 3 hours or until your veggies are mushy. If you’re using a pressure cooker about 40-50 minutes should be OK.
Right before turning the heat off add your spices. You can use pre-made mixes: anything called gumbo mix or southern mix or creole mix or Cajun mix will work. If you’d rather not use a pre-made mix (or can’t find it) salt, black pepper, paprika, mustard seeds, cayenne pepper, pepper flakes, garlic powder, celery seeds, thyme, parsley, oregano, bay leaves and brown sugar are common ingredients. If you are using file powder to thicken, add it now. Cook for 5 or so minutes and…
Serve hot over grits (can also be called coarse cornmeal or coarse polenta) or rice.
My vegan version
I used red and orange bell peppers, onions and a lot of celery (it was going bad). For veggies I added some broccoli stalks, they are great for soups and stews! My protein was extra firm tofu, and my thickener a roux. I didn’t want it too dark because I was going for a very thick gumbo.
When making a dish that originally uses meat for flavour I find that vegan alternatives can’t really do the job. There are several tricks, but my favourite is using Marmite (yeast extract). I hate Marmite, but you can’t even taste. It just add a fantastic savoury flavour that will trick any meat eater.
Instead of stock I used water and stock cubes, because they are so incredibly convenient. And for seasoning I used a mix that has salt, black pepper, sugar, tomato powder, chilli, mustard, oregano, parsley, cumin, garlic, onion, paprika, and cayenne.
I served it over rice mixed with chopped spinach.
I made a lot! So we ate about half over 3 days and froze the rest in individual servings.