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Gumbo and jambalaya are classic Louisiana dishes that have become popular across the country. Both dishes boast multicultural Creole and Cajun roots, so they are similar all the way up to the point they're quite different. The main difference between the two is the role of the rice, which is integral to both. Gumbo is served with rice that is cooked separately, but rice goes into the jambalaya pot.

People who grew up eating gumbo and jambalaya often retain lifetime loyalties to the way it was made in their family, community, or favorite restaurant. For those of us not raised on these dishes, we probably remember the first spoonful that brought us up to speed, the bite that made us say "Ah, that's the stuff. Now I get it."

Credit: Southern Living

Gumbo

Gumbo is a Louisiana stew (or soup if brothy!) that dates back to the early 18th century. Gumbo is the state dish of Louisiana, and there are a number of gumbo festivals held in the fall—the World Championship Gumbo Cookoff is in October. The name gumbo comes from kimgambo, the word for okra by West African slaves. Multiple cultures contributed to gumbo's ingredients and evolution, including French, Spanish, German, West African, and Native American. This low and slow, celebratory dish is known for feeding a crowd, or it can scale down for the family dinner table.

Gumbo is served with rice

Gumbo is always served with hot, long-grain, white rice, yet rice never goes into the cooking pot. Most recipes contain vegetables and one or more meats, birds, and/or seafood simmered together in thickened stock, although there are meatless gumbos, such as some recipes for Gumbo Z'Herbes, a traditional Lenten dish. Gumbo can be brothy or a little more like stew, depending on the techniques and preferences of the cook

Roux Is the foundation of gumbo

Roux is the heart and soul of most gumbos. Despite its French name and daunting reputation, roux is nothing more than flour and fat cooked together until they transform into a smooth paste that can thicken a recipe a little, or a lot. Some roux are cooked only until light golden blond. Others, through the combined powers of vigilance, patience, and many minutes of nonstop stirring over a bubbling, scalding pot, are taken all the way to deep, dark mahogany brown. Dark roux adds deeper flavor and color to gumbo, although the darker the roux, the less thickening power it delivers. Recognizing and achieving the appropriate shade of roux for a given gumbo recipe takes a knowing eye, so a cook's way with roux is a point of pride and a benchmark for their culinary prowess.

Other traditional thickeners: okra and filé

Gumbo often includes at least one other thickener, such as okra, either fresh or dried, left in tell-tale rounds or simmered until it disappears into the liquid. Culinary historians teach us that the word gumbo derives from a West African word for okra.

Others gumbo cooks turn to filé, the dried and powdered leaves of the North American sassafras, for thickening and flavor. (The roots and bark of this same plant were the original base for root beer.) Knowledge of how to use filé in cooking is a contribution of the Choctaw Native Americans and perhaps other tribes.

Cajun vs. Creole gumbos

Gumbo is both a Creole and a Cajun dish, and while there is a lot of overlap, there are few key differences. "Both start with a roux and might incorporate okra or filé powder, but Cajun gumbo usually includes chicken or sausage, while Creole gumbo often uses shellfish," writes Southern Living assistant editor Kaitlyn Yarborough. But if there's one ingredient that separates the two, it's tomatoes—Creole gumbo uses tomatoes but Cajun gumbo does not.

Credit: Greg DuPree

Jambalaya

Jambalaya is a rice dish originating in the early 18th century in Southern Louisiana. "The dish has been a part of New Orleans cuisine since Colonial Spanish settlers tried reconstructing their native paella from locally-sourced ingredients," according to the New Orleans' tourism coalition. Jambalaya's ingredients also draw from a mix of cultures, including the French (mirepoix), West Africans (rice), Germans (sausage), and Native Americans (cayenne). Like gumbo, you'll see crowd-pleasing jambalaya at Mardi Gras and other celebrations, and the dish also has its own festival. Gonzales, Louisiana, called the jambalaya "capital of the world" hosts the Gonzales Jambalaya Festival, which includes a world championship cooking contest.

Jambalaya is a rice dish

Rice is a key ingredient in jambalaya, not an accompaniment.  This thick rice stew is a distant relative of Spanish paella, but made with local ingredients. There are countless creative ways to make jambalaya, but there's also decorum and tradition that keep the dish recognizable. A standard jambalaya includes rice, protein, vegetables, and spices.

Cajun vs. Creole jambalaya

Creole jambalaya, also known as red jambalaya, contains tomatoes. Cajun or brown jambalaya does not. Jambalaya isn't thickened with roux, although some cooks do include a little skillet-browned flour.

Meaty and smoky flavors

Smoked pork sausage, such as andouille, is the most common meat, although others rely on diced ham, such as spicy, smoky tasso.

The holy trinity

Jambalaya also relies on the seasoning from the holy trinity, the nickname for the finely chopped trio of onion, celery, and bell pepper, a descendant of French mirepoix. There's often a pinch of cayenne in jambalaya and a bottle of hot sauce within easy reach on the table. (In contrast, many gumbo cooks take umbrage when people add hot sauce.)

Gumbo and Jambalaya Cooking Tips and Tricks

If you're getting ready to cook gumbo or jambalaya, there's a few tips and tools to keep in mind. Gumbo and jambalaya are one-pot dishes, preferably cooked in a Dutch oven, which conducts heat nicely for roux, searing proteins, sautéing vegetables, and simmering. Jambalaya can be pulled off in an Instant Pot or a sheet pan, however, and even jazzed up from a box mix.

To make roux for gumbo, a whisk is essential, and there are roux whisks dedicated to the task—at the other extreme, there are instant and pre-prepared roux available, and you can also try this roux microwave hack to speed up the process. For gumbo's key accompaniment, check out these tips for making good rice, most home cooks have burned or overcooked rice at least once in their life!

Shrimp is a popular ingredient in Cajun and Creole recipes—this tool helps clean, devein and de-shell shrimp, according to Southern Living editor Valerie Fraser Luesse.

Our Favorite Gumbo and Jambalaya Recipes

Gumbo and jambalaya recipes have a lot to say and shouldn't be separated from their stories and history. Much depends on who stirred the pot, then and now. For Southern Living gumbo recipes, check out seafood-based, chicken-based, meatless, or a mix of everything. We also have classic jambalaya recipes or modern ones that use a sheet pan or Instant Pot.

Gumbo recipes

Seafood-based gumbos

Poultry-based gumbos

Everything gumbo (chicken, sausage, and seafood)

Meatless gumbo

Jambalaya recipes

Classic jambalaya

Modern Jambalaya

More Cajun and Creole Recipes

Aside from gumbo and jambalaya, other classic Cajun and Creole dishes include, red beans and rice, dirty rice, étouffée, seafood boils, po' boys and muffulettas, remoulade sauce, and maque choux. Go big—celebrate the food of Mardi Gras with savory Fat Tuesday dishes and something sweet like king cake or beignets. Or go small—simply add some zip to your meal with Cajun or Creole seasoning (like Zatarain's, Slap Ya Mama, and Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning), or you can always make your own.

Louisiana cuisine has something delicious for everyone to eat!