Louisiana has adopted an official state drink (milk), an official state fruit (strawberry) and two official jellies (sugar cane and mayhaw). We don’t, however, have an official state soup—at least not yet—but if we did, it’d be gumbo. This staple of local cuisine is synonymous with the state, and the word “gumbo” is even used to describe Louisiana’s melting-pot culture.
The specifics on Louisiana gumbo's origins, unfortunately, are a little uncertain, but the name itself comes from the West African word for okra, “ki ngombo.” Okra was used as a thickener and some gumbo recipes still incorporate the pods. Filé powder, which is ground sassafras, is another ingredient traditionally used for thickening and flavor. Some add a dash of the powder at the table and some pass on the powder altogether.
No two gumbo recipes are the same, and you’ll find regional differences, but most start with a roux base (flour and oil/butter). The "trinity”— chopped onions, bell peppers and celery—are added, along with stock and seasonings. The two most popular kinds you’ll find dished out at local restaurants are chicken-and-sausage gumbo and seafood gumbo. Seafood gumbo might include any kind of combination of shrimp, crab, oysters or crawfish. But there are countless variations. Some add duck or even steak or turkey. Gumbo z’herbes, or green gumbo, is made without meat, just greens and herbs, and is a Lenten favorite. No matter where you go and what kind you order up, one thing’s for sure: Gumbo is always served with a nice scoop of rice.
Gumbo Best Bets
When Food Network chef Bobby Flay chose to "throw down" with New Orleans' own Poppy Tooker to see who makes the best gumbo, he tangled with the wrong woman. Tooker walked away the winner, and now you can create the same dish in your own kitchen. Try Poppy Tooker's seafood gumbo recipe. Not a seafood fan? Try chef Patrick Mould's recipe for chicken and andouille gumbo.
In a state with some 400 festivals, you know a few are dedicated to gumbo!
Louisiana Gumbo Festival: Held each October in Chackbay. In this part of the state, the dish is often served with a scoop of potato salad in the bowl or on the side.
St. Augustine Church Fair: Each October, the fair is held in conjunction with the Natchitoches Fall Pilgrimage/Tour of Homes. Locals come here to buy their gumbo by the gallon.
Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival: What better way to celebrate the melting pot of cultures in Tremé than with simmering pots of gumbo? Enjoy free admission to this fest in Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans.
World Championship Gumbo Cook-Off: Head to this three-day festival in New Iberia to experience the best in world of gumbo. Between bites, groove to the live music.
There are certainly many great restaurants to order a bowl of gumbo. Here are just a few:
Charley G’s: This longtime favorite in Lafayette serves a yummy smoked duck and andouille gumbo.
Dooky Chase: A New Orleans treasure. For a treat, try their gumbo z’herbes served on Holy Thursday. 504.821.0535
Prejean’s: Based in Lafayette, Prejean’s is known for award-winning gumbo and their pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo is a favorite at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Thanks to the folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance and Tabasco, you can really dig into our gumbo heritage by exploring The Southern Gumbo Trail. Their website includes an interactive map, recipes and oral histories by locals known for their gumbo.