It sounds like a cartoon character, gumbo, but there's nothing cartoonish about this rich layered stew which was borne from the multicultural enclave of French-colonised Louisiana, influenced by diverse communities who came, conquered, settled and were enslaved. The first time I tried gumbo was in New Orleans, the capital of Louisiana, on a balmy evening at the French Quarter. My sister and I were the only Asians at the restaurant, which, in a way, we thought was a good thing, thinking we broke off the tourist trail. We had spent a long day traversing the entire stretch of Magazine Street, from Audubon Park to the central area, so being able to sit down and enjoy this flavourful stew was nothing short of magical.
Gumbo is mostly seafood and sausages, along with okra, celery and a mix of spices; contributions from the French, Spanish, Africans and Native Americans. There are some variations, where fowl or ham is added, and sometimes oysters. I prefer the traditional style, which includes shrimp (sadly, no crayfish, which is a must in New Orleans), crabmeat and andouille sausage.
The main difference between Creole style and Cajun style gumbo is in the roux, a natural thickener made of flour and fat. The roux in Creole gumbo is generally lighter than the Cajun style. Both can be achieved using bacon fat or andouille sausages mixed with oil and flour.
This stew takes time and patience to make, but it's worth it. Best served with steamed rice or warm bread.
Cooking time: 2 hours
Serves: 6-8 persons
1 kilo large shrimps, with head and shell intact
1 cup crabmeat lump
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 bay leaves
1.5 teaspoons fish sauce
2-3 andouille sausages, cut into 1-inch thick slices
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1.5 cups diced onions
1/2 cup diced green bell pepper
1 cup diced celery
2 cups sliced okra
1.5 tablespoons smoked paprika
1.5 tablespoons ground white pepper
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 tablespoon ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup rice vinegar or plain vinegar
1. Peel and devein shrimp, and reserve the shells. Put shrimp in bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.
2. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in stockpot over medium heat. Add 1 teaspoon of the minced garlic, 1 bay leaf and reserved shrimp shells. Cook, stirring frequently, until the shells turn dark pink and the garlic turns brown. Add 4.5 litres of water and 1.5 teaspoons of fish sauce and bring stock to a boil. Reduce to simmer and continue to cook for 30 minutes, while adding the onion and celery trimmings to the stock.
3. Meanwhile, heat 1 teaspoon oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook the sausages until well-browned on all sides. Transfer sausages to a plate, but keep the pork fat in the oven mixed with the oil. Add remaining vegetable oil to the Dutch oven, then stir in flour a few tablespoons at a time. Continue to cook over medium heat, constantly stirring until a light brown roux is formed, about 15 to 20 minutes. The roux should smelly nutty and look like peanut butter.
Keep stirring the roux slowly until the flour lumps disappear.
4. Back to the stockpot. Stir in salt, onions, remaining garlic, peppers and celery, and cook for about 5 minutes. Add okra and continue cooking and stirring for another 5 minutes. Stir in vinegar, remaining bay leaves, paprika and thyme. Continue cooking for another 10 minutes.
5. Strain 4 liters of shrimp stock into Dutch oven. Stir to combine with roux, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot. Return sausages to the gumbo, and bring just to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
6. Add parsley, the shrimp from the refrigerator, and crabmeat into the gumbo. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly; a bit more salt? Or pepper to draw out heat? Or how about more paprika to give the gumbo more colour? It's your choice. Cook for 10 minutes more, then turn off heat, cover the lid and bring to the table to serve.