What is a Basic Recipe for Gumbo?

The American city of New Orleans is famous for three main cultural attractions (aside from the hurricanes) Mardi Gras, jazz music, and gumbo. All three can be attributed to the mixed background of its inhabitants. The state of Louisiana, where New Orleans is located, was originally populated by the Choctaw and other native peoples. The first European colonists in the area were French, and they founded the city of Nouvelle-Orlans in 1718. It was always a major trade center, being located at the mouth of the Mississippi River, which gives access to an enormous area of the North American continent.

In the 1750s, a large group of French colonists in eastern Canada were exiled when the English won the French and Indian War. These people, known as Cajuns (a distortion of the word Akadians, which referred to their northern homeland) moved to the sister colony of New Orleans, bringing some distinctive traits of their own to the region. While the Spanish owned the city from 1763 to 1803, and promoted the immigration of large groups of fisherman from the Canary Islands, the dominating culture was always French.

A major factor in this culture was the use of slave labor, beginning with captured local natives, but expanding to include captured Africans from 1710 onwards. Unlike many cultures which relied on slavery for its work force, the people of New Orleans mixed races and cultural traits somewhat openly.

In 1803, the United States, which only consisted at the time of the states east of the Mississippi River, purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. This included most of the modern region of western America. Even with the Americanizing of the region, the cultural roots have remained French, African and Indian. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, the principal day of the Catholic (or ancient Roman) Carnival festivities. Jazz music is a mixture of old slave spirituals with a local swing from the ragtime era, including much instrumental improvisation. And then there's gumbo.

Mixing African vegetables and local native seasoning with French cuisine, gumbo became a standard dish for the residents of New Orleans. Some say the name comes from the word used by the Bantu people of South Africa for okra (ki ngombo), while others believe it derives from the Choctaw word for sassafras (kombo). It is not certain if the dish itself comes from the Indians or the Africans, or if it is a variation on the French dish bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew.

Although there are an infinite number of gumbo recipes, with each family maintaining its own tradition, all basic varieties have a common method of preparation. This process consists of a stage in which the basic thickening gravy, or roux, is prepared; then comes a second stage in which the vegetables are added and cooked; then comes the addition of the desired meat; and finally, the finishing stage when seasoning and optional seafood and shellfish are added.

One recipe begins with a preparatory stage peel half a kilo of shrimp, temporarily storing the tails in the refrigerator. Boil the shrimp heads and outer shells in 2 liters of water, uncovered, until the water is reduced to about one liter. Filter this liquid through a sieve to remove all solids. This liquid will be the broth for the third stage (this can be replaced by 2-3 beef bouillon cubes and an extra 2 cups of water).

The true first stage goes as follows: cut 2 breasts of chicken, boned and skinless, into small cubes. Heat a quarter cup of vegetable oil (corn or soy) in a large pot, and cook the cubes in this till completely browned. Remove the chicken, leaving the oil, and add half a kilogram of sliced sausage. Again, cook till completely browned and remove the sausage from the pan. To the oil and fat mix in the pot, add 2 tablespoons of butter or margarine and half a cup of sifted wheat flour. Cook over medium heat till this gravy is thick, around 10 minutes, stirring continuously. This results in the soup base called roux.

For stage two, lower the heat and add 3 more tablespoons of butter or margarine to the base broth. Add a large white onion, 8 cloves of garlic, a green bell pepper (with the seeds removed), and 3 stalks of celery, all chopped finely, cooking for another 10 minutes. Add a quarter cup of Worcestershire or soy sauce, and cook for 10 minutes more, stirring often. In stage three, add 4 cups of heated water and spices (2 whole bay leaves, 1 teaspoon of chopped thyme, and a quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper). Return the chicken and sausage to the pot. When the liquid boils, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and let simmer for about 45 minutes. Add half a dozen ripe raw tomatoes cut into cubes, 2 cups of sliced okra, and the shrimp broth, and let simmer for another 60 minutes, covered. The okra, which helps thicken the gumbo, is often substituted by fil powder (from dehydrated sassafras leaves, a native contribution to the recipe, but not available everywhere), or leave the pot uncovered to thicken the stew by evaporation.

Stage four consists of adding to the pot a small handful of parsley and 4 green onions, both finely chopped, and the shrimp tails. Add salt to taste. Traditionally, this gumbo is served with lots of white rice.

Written By: David Michael (Terespolis, Brazil)

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Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )

Disclaimer: The suggestions in the article(wherever applicable) are for informational purposes only. They are not intended as medical or any other type of advice