What Is Gumbo? A Look at Origins, Types, and Recipes
Nothing says Southern Louisiana food like gumbo: A thick stew-like soup of meat, okra, and Creole and Cajun seasonings. But its history—and even its essential ingredients and method of preparation—is widely disputed. Historians generally agree that its existence is first documented at the beginning of the 19th century. And the thickeners commonly used in many gumbo recipes (filé powder, okra, and gumbo roux—don’t worry, we explain all of these) give clues to its Choctaw Native American, West African, and French roots. Regardless of its disputed origins and the myriad ways it’s prepared, it’s an essential, treasured part of New Orleans, Louisiana Creole and Cajun culture, and we’re here to break it down for you: what gumbo is, what ingredients to use, and how to make different types, from sausage to chicken to seafood gumbo.
Gumbo vs. Jambalaya
While both gumbo and jambalaya are mainstays of Cajun and Creole cooking, they’re both distinct dishes with different methods of prep. While gumbo is typically enjoyed as a rich, flavorful soup, sometimes served spooned over rice, jambalaya is similar to Spanish paella: The rice is usually cooked with the protein (usually some mix of chicken, seafood, and/or sausage) along with the stock, seasonings, and veggies in one large ready-to-serve skillet. Creole Jambalaya may include tomatoes, while Cajun typically does not.
Gumbo is usually distinguished by what is used to thicken it—typically okra, filé powder, a roux, or some combination of the three. The name “gumbo” is also speculated to come from the name of the traditional bases: either from the word kingombo, a West African Bantu word for okra, or from kombo, the Choctaw Native American word for filé powder, an essential spice.
Filé powder: Filé powder is dried crushed leaves from Sassafras, a plant native to the Southeastern U.S. The powder is usually added at the end of the recipe to thicken and season the gumbo and can usually be found in a well-stocked supermarket or spice store.
Okra: Used either fresh or dried, okra is one of the most common thickening agents of gumbo and gives it its distinctive taste and flavor—it’d be difficult to find a recipe for gumbo that doesn’t make copious use of okra. Traditionally, when okra is out of season, dried okra can be used instead.
Roux: Derived from French cooking, gumbo roux is much darker than the mildly toasted roux used in classical French cuisine. It’s made by toasting flour in fat such as butter until it’s golden brown, but many gumbo roux recipes call for a roux that is “chocolate-colored,” “mahogany,” or even “close to burnt”, and they’re typically made with oil instead of butter.
“Holy Trinity”: Similar to mirepoix, (carrot, onion, and celery) the “Holy Trinity” is the base of much of Creole and Cajun cooking—bell pepper, onions, and celery is used to start many gumbo recipes. Depending on the recipe, shallots, garlic, and parsley can also be included in this essential blend.
Common Types of Gumbo
Gumbo is traditionally made by whatever protein is on hand or in season, so there are endless variations that all yield delicious results. Traditional favorites usually include seafood gumbo, sausage gumbo, and chicken gumbo, but it’s incredibly versatile. If you’re ready to try your hand at this New Orleans classic, here are some of our best gumbo recipes to get you started.
This spicy, tangy, seafood gumbo makes use of crabmeat, shrimp, and sausage. Serve it over rice for a filling and complete meal. This recipe uses tomato paste, a less traditional (but still tasty) addition.
This chicken gumbo is hearty, wholesome, and fast, making it a perfect weeknight dinner option. This recipe uses both a roux and okra as thickeners.
Turkey and Andouille Sausage Gumbo
- This gumbo is a great vehicle for any leftover meat you may have—baked turkey, rotisserie chicken, or any leftover roast can be tossed into this dish and the flavors will all meld beautifully. Andouille sausage, a French sausage that was brought over by French and Acadian immigrants is an integral part of Cajun and Creole cooking.
- Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
Not all gumbos are full of seafood—this one brims with pieces of tender chicken and spicy sausage. And, in keeping with the tradition of gumbos, it's thickened with a rich roux and file powder.
Recipe: Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
This gumbo recipe utilizes a roux and okra to thicken the soup. Andouille sausage makes an appearance again, and this gumbo also uses tomatoes—a nontraditional but tasty addition to the stew.
Randy Mayor; Jan Gautro
Seafood gives gumbo its authentic coastal flair—this recipe uses shrimp and crab but you can add whatever seafood you have on hand or is fresh at your supermarket.
Gramercy Crawfish Gumbo
Becky Luigart-Stayner; Jan Gautro and Lydia DeGaris-Pursell
Instead of making a traditional gumbo roux, this recipe toasts flour in the oven to get the same nutty flavor (but without the fat), and uses okra instead as its primary thickener.