Gumbo, the South Louisianian dish that traces its roots to West African cuisine

Gumbo, a historical dish with an origin that extends as far back as the transatlantic slave trade, and runs as deep as the roots of black history. From cookouts to private family dinners to large vibrant festivals, this delectable South Louisianian dish is a favorite in African American cuisine. The word gumbo is an adaptation of the West African term “ki ngombo,” for okra, which reflects the dominance of the West African culture over the other two, Native American and European cultures, that inspired the creation of this soul food.

The story of gumbo tells how enslaved Africans carried seeds of their native okra vegetable while being transported to the United States and the Caribbean. If they were being divorced from their roots, they couldn’t part without one of their cherished foods. The okra seeds were planted shortly after they arrived to preserve their traditions and to also stay connected to their roots one way or another.

West Africans generally make a blend of okra seasoned with a sauce made from a mixture of pepper, tomato, meat, salted fish, and sometimes hot palm oil to spice up their stew-like gumbo. Native Americans add file powder and sassafras to give their gumbo more flavor or thicken it while on fire. However, in a European setting, roux, which is used as a base for gumbo, is mainly a French cooking technique made to thicken food by adding a bit of butter and cooking flour, allowing it to take on its brown color. Back in South Louisiana, gumbo is made of seafood or meat, vegetables, a thickener, and a flavored stock. However, the recipe depends on the cook and any ingredients they add to make it “extra.”

A major distinction in the preparation of gumbo is the hours each side of the divide invests in its preparation. In a typical West African setting, it takes a bit longer to prepare the dish than in Louisiana. Time is spent treating the fresh ingredients from the market, and each element, including fish, vegetables, and slices of okra follow a methodical sequence of getting into the cooking pot. In the U.S. however, many ingredients are already processed and do not require a lot of labor in their preparation. The sequence approach is also missing in its preparation.

In the United States, gumbo may more or less stand out as a symbol to the people of Louisiana because it sets them apart from other states, however, its West African roots cannot be underestimated. Whether one visits Ghana, Benin, or Nigeria, eating this delicacy connects all with an indescribable bond. Its arrival in the Caribbean and the United States may evoke memories of slavery, but its taste makes up for the blight in history.

Stephen Nartey

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