Whether or not you agree that okra should go in gumbo, the vegetable is inextricably linked to gumbo’s birth in the cultural stews of New Orleans. Slaves arriving at port in the 18th century brought with them the slimy, seedy, furry, rich and hardy vegetable from West Africa, which they called kimgombo in the Bantu dialect. It was tossed into chicken stocks and seafood stocks, served over starches, combined with Spanish chaurice and ham, German sausages, and French roux’s. Its name dropped the kim, subbed in a “u”, and gave Louisiana’s national dish a name.
Despite it’s intimate role in gumbo’s origin, inclusion of okra in a gumbo is often seen as a polarizing difference among gumbo variations from either side of the Mississippi river. An oversimplification of the debate would mislead the uninitiated into assuming that okra is always excluded in the darker, game-heavier gumbos found west of the river in Acadiana, while abundant in the soupier seafood gumbos of New Orleans. But proliferation and distribution okra gumbos doesn’t really shake down as simply as New Orleans “yes” and Acadiana “no”.
Folks in various parts of Acadiana are, despite what’s often misunderstood to be the case, quite fond of okra in their gumbos. Where they differ is in their application of the vegetable, and the role it plays in their gumbo recipes. For New Orleans gumbos, okra is typically added fresh to utilize the syrupy innards as a natural thickening agent. Gumbos in Acadiana, achieve their thickness from browned meats, heavier stocks, and larger volumes of dark roux, adding smothered okra for extra richness and a deep green flavor.
Take Yvette Shelvin of Carencro, in the northern reaches of Lafayette Parish, the cultural capital of Acadiana. For generations, her family has picked, cleaned, chopped, and canned okra for use in a multitude of family recipes, most prominently gumbos. For ease of deployment, she smothers her okra in the low and lazy heat of a 250° oven. The furry skins are browned in vegetable oil with onions and bell pepper, and left to stew slowly until the interior goo renders into a rich pulp that can be frozen for months.
At any given moment, Yvette has upwards of 25 to 30 mason jars full of smothered okra, extending the shelf life and use of it for well past the four-month okra season. She empties the jars into simmering pots of sausage and chicken to add savory richness to a gumbo already thick and velvety from a long reduction.
Two gumbos can ever be alike, even when the ingredients are the same. A quick trip from Lafayette to New Orleans can be proof enough of that idiom, especially when it comes to how okra is prepared for use in gumbo. But shared truths do boil from the different gumbo pots simmering around the state. While okra may not look the same or even make it in every gumbo, the reasons for its original inclusion set the standard for inclusion of every ingredient that followed it: it’s delicious, versatile, and available.
½ c Vegetable Oil
3 lbs Fresh Okra, Chopped
6 c of Water or Shrimp Stock
3 tbsp Roux
1 Onion, Chopped
1 Red Bell Pepper, Chopped
1 Green Bell Pepper, Chopped
1 Celery Stalk, Chopped
2 lbs Chicken Breast, Chopped
½ Box of Savoy’s Sausage
3 lbs Shrimp, Peeled, Cleaned & Deveined
1 Small Bag Powered Shrimp
Salt & Pepper to Taste
Pre-heat oven to 350˚ in preparation for smothering okra.
Place ¼ cup of vegetable oil in medium sized pot over medium heat.
Once oil is heated add okra to the pan and stir as to cover the okra with the oil.
Sauté for three to five minutes, stirring consistently before placing in the pre-heated oven.
Stir okra every 15 -20 minutes for two hours.
In large pot start water or shrimp stock on a low boil.
1 c Flour
1 c Vegetable Oil
Mix equal parts flour and vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet continuously stirring on medium heat until you reach the desired color of roux. Depending on your preference of darkness the roux will take anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour. Once you have reached the color of roux you desire turn off heat. Continue to stir until the skillet cools. Once the skillet has cooled set aside for later. Store any leftovers in a mason jar.
Add 3 tbsp of roux to the low boiling water one spoonful at a time until dissolved.
Cook for 20 minutes.
Add onion, bell peppers and celery to gumbo stock.
Cook for another 20 minutes.
Season chicken with salt and pepper to taste.
Use remaining ¼ cup of oil to pan fry chicken on all sides until golden brown.
Add pan fried chicken to gumbo stock.
Cut Savoy’s sausage into ¼ inch medallions and add to gumbo stock.
Simmer for 15 minutes.
Add oven smothered okra, shrimp and powdered shrimp to gumbo stock.
Let simmer for 10 minutes.
Season gumbo with salt and pepper to taste and serve over rice.
Lafayette native Christiaan Mader has been eating gumbo for over thirty years, twenty-eight of which he’s managed do so without any help from his mom. When not waxing pompously about food and what should be in it, he’s writing and recording songs for his critically acclaimed band Brass Bed, a fixture of the south Louisiana music scene. He’s performed internationally with Sub Pop recording artist Shearwater, and written Ray Davies fan fiction for Vice Magazine. His music has been featured in publications like Spin, Entertainment Weekly, and The New Yorker, as well as on nationally syndicated radio programs and podcasts produced by NPR and KEXP. To view more of Christiaan’s work, or to contact him about a project please visit christiaanmader.pressfolios.com/.