Gumbo is a rich and flavorful thick soup typically associated with Louisiana cuisine, although its roots are West African. The main two components are rice and rich broth made with herbs, vegetables and meat. The meat can be crab, shrimp, crawfish, oyster, duck, quail, chicken, venison etc. Of the vegetables, one typical ingredient is okra, which came to America from West Africa. We used to cook gumbo in Port Harcourt, Nigeria using homegrown okra. We have also tasted a traditional spicy seafood soup in Cameroon, which tasted almost exactly like gumbo, minus roux.
The typical explanation is that the name gumbo was derived from the word for okra in one of the thousands of languages spoken in West Africa. However, having seen the extreme variety of languages in Nigeria alone (at least 400), I would like to know which language it was.
There are three ways that are commonly use to thicken a gumbo: adding okra, filé powder or roux. Filé powder, also called gumbo filé, is a spice made from dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree. The tender green leaves are gathered, dried, and ground to a powder. This practice comes from the Choctaw Indians who had had a settlement at Bayou Lacombe on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain long before the white man and the black man arrived. Only a few tablespoons of the powder are enough to thicken an entire pot of gumbo and give it a spicy and pleasant flavor. The filé is always added after the pot has been removed from the fire, or it becomes stringy and unpalatable. Okra and filé should never be used together, or the gumbo will become as thick as mud.
Filé was traditionally an okra substitute in the winter when okra was not in season. People fished in the summer, made gumbo using seafood and thickened it with whatever was most readily available fresh: okra (or roux). In the winter when it is cool (it is never "cold" in Lousiana, at least not by Siberian standards), people hunted and made gumbos with game or meat and thickened them with filé (or roux), because okra was not available. However, there is a gumbo made in Terrebone Parish around Houma year around, which uses no roux at all and relies on filé powder for thickening and on onions for color. I worked with a Cajun drilling engineer in Lagos who made his gumbo in this manner. (Imagine - a gumbo without roux! Oh Là Là!)
Finally, there is the subject of roux. Roux in general is a cooked mixture of wheat flour and fat (vegetable oil, clarified butter, lard), used in most western cuisines: French, Italian, Hungarian, German, Czech, as well as Creole. It is the thickening agent of three of the mother sauces of classic French cuisine: sauce béchamel, sauce velouté and sauce espagnole. Light roux provides little flavor other than a characteristic richness to various dishes in French, German and Czech sauces. On the other hand, dark roux adds a distinct nutty flavor, and is made with vegetable oils because of their higher smoke point than butter. This is the roux used in Cajun and Creole cuisine for gumbos and stews. The darker the roux, the less thickening power it has: a chocolate roux has about one-fourth the thickening power, by weight, of a white roux.
Last updated: October 12, 2010