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By Sheri Castle
July 27, 2020
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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 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 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.

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.

Credit: Greg DuPree

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