When Mardi Gras comes around every year, our fervor for all things Louisiana tends to be at an all-time high. We're all in on the "les bon temps rouler"—we want the beads, the booze, and most importantly, the Mardi Gras menu. (We're looking at you, king cake.) While there's nothing better than late a vegetarian soup, there's just something a little extra special about eating gumbo and jambalaya this time of year. These are staple dishes in Creole and Cajun cuisines of Louisiana and its neighboring states to the east. Both dishes include the “holy trinity” of ingredients—onion, celery, and green pepper—as well as other key ingredients like rice, meat, and vegetables. But like a lot of foods in Creole and Cajun cuisines, gumbo and jambalaya are very different from one another.
To get to the heart of the matter let’s have a little history lesson. This is pretty simplistic, but think of Creole as city folk and Cajun as country folk. The Creole originated in New Orleans; they are the descendants of French, Spanish, African, and Native American peoples. Creoles used exotic spices and perishable ingredients (thanks to access to refrigeration) such as butter. Cajuns are descendants of French Canadians, and they typically lived in rural areas of southern Louisiana. They tended to cook in a more simple style.
Now on to the good stuff!
What is gumbo?
The exact origin of gumbo is unknown. Some surmise the name is derived from the Bantu word for okra, kingombo, leading some to believe that it has West African roots. Others note similarities to French bouillabaisse. A third theory connects its roots to Native Americans, as they were early users of filé powder, a spice and thickening agent made from dried and ground sassafras leaves. The Choctaws word for sassafras is kombo. No matter its beginnings, gumbo is a delicious and complex dish that everyone should add to their repertoire.
A thickened soup or stew, gumbo is traditionally served over rice. It’s a staple dish in both Creole and Cajun cuisine. Historically it can contain seafood—although more common in Creole varieties—or chicken, duck, squirrel, and rabbit, all of which is more common in Cajun versions of the dish. Modern adaptations are a combination of seafood, fowl, and sausage and might be served over biscuits or mashed potatoes instead of rice.
Besides the holy trinity, the main vegetable in gumbo is okra, but there are versions without it, too. In Creole gumbo, the holy trinity is sautéed in butter. Lard or oil is used in Cajun varieties. And in a nod to those Spanish settlers, creole gumbo has tomatoes. A signature element of gumbo is to cook the roux (flour cooked in a fat) until it is very dark brown, which gives the dish a dark color, as well as a nutty and intense flavor.
As mentioned above filé powder is another unique ingredient in gumbo. It is added when the gumbo has finished cooking and been removed from the heat. Filé powder has a unusual savory flavor, often described as root beer-like. Filé will help thicken the gumbo and give it a distinctive flavor. In restaurants, gumbo will be served with a jar of filé powder
and a bottle of Tabasco alongside so diners can adjust the flavors to their liking.
Ok, now what is jambalaya?
Like gumbo, the origins of jambalaya are unknown. Some surmise that it was created by Spanish settlers in New Orleans who were trying to re-create paella using tomatoes in place of the more expensive and hard-to-find saffron. The use of andouille might be something inspired by the French. One thing we do know: Jambalaya is a real melting pot. Seriously, it's a one-pot meal.
Think of jambalaya as more of a casserole or a distant cousin to paella. Like gumbo, it starts with the holy trinity and has similar proteins (such as seafood, fowl, and sausage), but the rice is cooked in the same vessel as the other ingredients. Also like gumbo, there are variations in the dish based on who and where the cooking is going down.
Historically, creole jambalaya, also called "red jambalaya," includes tomatoes, which gives the dish a distinctly red color. Cajun jambalaya, called “brown jambalaya” does not include tomatoes, thus lending it a more of a brown hue.
The cooking method for each variety is different, too. The Cajun version begins by browning meats and creating a dark fond in the pan. The dish is then built on that initial blast of flavor, including the “holy trinity,” of course. Creole jambalaya starts with the “holy trinity” and then builds from there.
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