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Battle of the Bayou: Jambalaya or Gumbo

Battle of the Bayou: Jambalaya vs Gumbo

This is one of the epic food battles that to some is on par with some of the classic struggles of all time – North vs. South, Yankees vs. the Red Sox, Guy vs. Rachael, or maybe Democrats vs. Republicans (ok maybe not that bad).
 
We have had the wonderful experience of living for several years in New Orleans (a.k.a. N'awlins, the Crescent City, the Big Easy, NOLA) and this beautiful area straddles the Mississippi River and is truly unlike any other city in the US. Yes New York, LA and Chicago we know how amazing you have been and will continue to be, but you just don't generate the same vibe). New Orleans is called by some the most European of all the US cities, and what sets it apart is not just the food, the music or the oppressive humidity but the people. They have a laidback style and a unique language that’s all their own. Even now, as we live in the northeastern US, we are drawn back to this jewel of the south several times a year. Always during June with Jazz Fest and of course for Mardi Gras. Now, to the uninitiated Mardi Gras isn't "one single day" it's actually the last day (and the climax) of the two week long New Orleans Carnival Season. This last day of the Mardi Gras season is also known as Fat Tuesday.

As we're becoming more familiar in this country regarding the continued trend of fusion food many of us, in our quest to find the next awesome thing, are overlooking the fact that the Cajun and Creole dishes of The Big Easy have long been the result of the ultimate fusing of people and culinary flavor. Over the years this cuisine has been influenced by the French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Native American and African people that have all had a major impact in this city and its surrounding areas since it was established in 1718.
 
While the food in this southern Louisiana region is spectacular, the two most arguably famous dishes have to be Jambalaya (Jam-ba-lie-ya) and Gumbo (Gum-bow). Now you really can’t say one is “better than the other” as they are both amazing in their own right.


Jambalaya

Jambalaya is the kindred culinary cousin of Spanish Paella. Jambalaya typically consists of three stages – meat and vegetables, stock and then rice. For authentic Jambalaya you have two primary styles to choose from either Creole, also called “red jambalaya” (which includes tomatoes) or Cajun (no tomatoes allowed).
 
One pot Creole jambalaya starts with the meat which is typically chicken and sausage. The sausage is usually Andouille (an-do-eee) or smoked sausage. Next up is the holy trinity of N’awlins vegetables, roughly 50% onions, 25% green bell peppers and 25% celery. Once the vegetables are translucent the tomatoes and seafood are then added. The seafood is some combination (or even all) of crabmeat, crawfish, firm-fleshed fish fillets cut into bite-sized pieces, shrimp and oysters. Towards the end of the cooking process stock (fish, chicken or vegetable) and rice are added. The rice is cooked in this pot.
 
Cajun style jambalaya also includes the holy trinity of vegetables (but no tomatoes). The meat choices are the similar but may also include alligator, duck, turtle and venison. The meat is typically cooked first in a cast iron pot so that the meat browns and sticks to the bottom of the pot. The meat is then removed from the pot and the vegetables are added and sautéed until soft. The meat, stock and seasonings are then added back to the pot and rice is added towards the end of the cooking process. Cajun jambalaya tends to be a bit spicier.
 
Jambalayas are ideally suited for fusion experimentation. A variety of meats, stock and spices can truly make it your own. But don’t stray too far from the standard vegetables and rice otherwise it isn’t really a jambalaya it becomes more like a stew.
 

Gumbo
Gumbo is more like a soup that is served over a small serving of rice (unlike Jambalaya the rice is not cooked in the same pan) and is believed to have originated in New Orleans in the 18th century. Like Jambalaya, there are subtle Cajun and Creole differences. This dish also draws on many different cultures including French, Spanish, German, West African, and Choctaw. No matter which version you prefer they all have a thickener (whether roux, okra or file powder).
 
Much of the flavor of the gumbo comes from the rich stock as it pairs with the chosen meat of the gumbo. For seafood gumbo use a well prepared seafood stock, for chicken gumbo a flavorful chicken stock. Don’t skimp on this step as it is the key to a flavorful gumbo. The best stocks are made from scratch.
 
The base of the best Cajun gumbos is the roux which is a mixture of oil and flour. Some believe the ideal mix is 1 to 1 and others ¾ cup oil to 1 cup flour. You’ll have to experiment to get your perfect roux.  The roux is mixed and cooked in a cast iron pot until brown (the color and texture is like a creamy peanut butter). Some prefer their roux to be a bit lighter in color and some a bit darker. Roux needs to be cooked slow and easy and should take 25 to 40 minutes with frequent stirring. Creole gumbo tends to use file powder as its thickener while African style gumbo uses okra as the thickener. A traditional Louisiana gumbo would never mix any of the three thickening agents.
 
All versions use the holy trinity of New Orleans vegetables. Arguably the two most popular meat combinations for gumbo are chicken and andouille sausage or a seafood gumbo with shrimp, crabmeat and andouille sausage. With the exception of sausage and occasionally ham, you’ll never find pork or beef used in a gumbo.
 
So which one is better? That really depends on the judge (that would be you). Both have their fans and as you can see, both Jambalaya and Gumbo have their own subtle differences as well. What I can guarantee is that the possibilities are practically endless.


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