Gumbo: Soup or Stew?

Is Gumbo A Soup or A Stew?

This is not a question that is apt to come up when a bowl of gumbo is first placed before you and your mouth is watering, either with hunger or with nostalgia for all those previous bowls of gumbo and the cherished memories that go along with them.

No. This is a question you are most apt to ask yourself in the preparatory stages — when you are reading the menu — or in the later stages — when you’ve made such a dent in the bowl that you feel sufficiently sated to expend energy on mere conversation.

Your answer to the soup or stew question might be dictated by the nature of the bowl in front of you. Are you feasting on the relatively thin gumbo at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, or the relatively thick gumbo at Upperline Restaurant?

Even if you consult the experts, you may come away uncertain. The late Ella Brennan, whose Commander’s Palace restaurant helped define contemporary Creole cuisine for generations of diners, offered a somewhat confusing personal history on the soup or stew question. Speaking in The Times-Picayune to food critic Brett Anderson in 2004, she recalled her childhood experiences with the dish:

“It was a shrimp and okra gumbo,” she said. “My mother didn’t always serve it with rice. If she was serving it as soup, no rice. If she was serving it as an entrée, with rice. Then as time went on, I remember very distinctly oysters being added. If she was feeling very ambitious, my mother would drive down to the market and get gumbo crabs.”

Mary Sonnier, who owns Gabrielle Restaurant with her chef-husband Greg, comes down on the soup side of the equation. “Greg’s gumbo is thicker than Mrs. Chase’s, but not as thick as a stew would be,” Sonnier said. “Though it’s probably richer in flavor and mouthfeel because of the stock and darker roux.”

Arguing to the contrary is City Councilmember Jay H. Banks who, though not a professional cook, takes his gumbo-making very seriously. “No sir. Gumbo is a stew,” he said. “I was always taught that the thicker the gumbo, the better it is.

“It should not look like dishwater. By the time you put it in the refrigerator and take it out the next day, it should be congealed to the point where it looks like gelatin,” he said.

This question is not confined to gumbo or even to New Orleans. The answer might just as well be found in the dictionary as on the plate, for the words “soup” and “stew” have different linguistic origins.

“We’ll start with soup, since its story (like its broth) is clearer,” Sam Dean wrote in the January 25, 2013 issue of Bon Appétit.

“The word started out in the Germanic family, from a root that’s since grown into modern words like ‘supper,’ ‘sup,’ and ‘sop,’ and that originally meant ‘consume something liquid.’

“This hopped over to Latin at some point before the 6th century to mean, specifically, a piece of bread eaten in a broth, a suppa. This then bopped along into French, where it started to mean both the broth-soaked bread and the broth itself. After a linguistic long jump across the English Channel in the 17th century (and a concurrent vogue for breadless broths), the word came to us, and we started making ‘soups’ instead of ‘pottages’ or ‘broths.’”

“Stew’s path to modern crockpots, though, gets a little hazy right from the get-go,” Dean wrote. “The first time that the Old French word estuve jumped to English shores as “stew,” it meant either a stove, a heated room, or a cooking cauldron.”

According to the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, our word “stew” comes from the Middle English word “stuen,” which comes from the French word “estuver.” It means “to cook in a little liquid over a gentle fire without boiling.”

But any effort to use linguistic history to determine gumbo’s soup-ness or stew-ness comes fraught with its own dangers — for instance, for the European words that are being used to define a dish with distinctly non-European origins.

The word “gumbo” is African in origin, and variations of it are used in several branches of the Bantu family of languages to describe the vegetable “okra.”

In her book, Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking, Jessica B. Harris wrote, “Okra goes by many names. In England, it is known as lady’s fingers because the young pods should be small and delicate. In the New World, most of okra’s names reflect its African origins and ring with drumlike sonorousness: quiabo in Brazil, quingombó in Spanish, and gumbo in French. The French term, which is taken from the work ki-ngombo in one of the Angolan languages, has given us the term gumbo.”

One reason people might be tempted to call gumbo a soup is that it is often mistakenly associated with bouillabaisse, a soup that hails from France’s Provençal region. Truth be told, there is more that separates the two dishes than that joins them. Most obviously, bouillabaisse uses primarily fin fish, which is seldom used in gumbo. Bouillabaisse also features a rouille, an add-at-the-table sauce of peppers, garlic, saffron, lemon juice and egg yolk. All of those ingredients — save the saffron — were readily available in early New Orleans, yet the cooks who crafted gumbo didn’t see fit to use them. Clearly, bouillabaisse was not the Old World dish they were seeking to replicate with gumbo.

Okra the vegetable, though indigenous to the African continent, is very much at home in the American South. Okra dishes can be found throughout the African continent. In her umbrella description of African cuisine, Harris coined the phrase “soupy stew” as a sort of split-the-difference approach to the soup vs. stew question.

“From Morocco in the north to South Africa, from Kenya in the east to Cameroon in the west, the continent’s traditional dishes tended to be variations on the theme of a soupy stew over a starch or a grilled or fried animal protein accompanied by a vegetable sauce and/or a starch,” Harris wrote in her book High on the Hog.

In Nigeria, where many Louisiana residents can trace their ancestral roots, it seems that every dish is called a soup — okra soup, edikaikong soup (which features periwinkles in the shell), egusi soup (which is made with ground melon seeds), to name a few.

All of these dishes can contain a combination of meat and seafood, depending the cook’s preference. “It’s never a soup in the Western way; it’s always a stew,” said Tunde Wey, a Nigerian chef whose Lagos food stall was an early tenant in New Orleans’ reincarnated St. Roch Market.

When speaking among themselves, Nigerians usually refer to these dishes simply as “egusi” or “edikaikong,” Wey said. There’s no need to define them by the English words “soup” or “stew,” because those words offer no additional clarity to people already well-versed in Nigerian cuisine.

Fatmata Binta, a chef based in Accra, Ghana, shares her knowledge of West African cuisines on her Fulani Kitchen website and Instagram feed, as well as through her “Traditional Nomadic Dine on a Mat Experiences” in Accra. She said that the soupiness or “stewiness” of okra dishes varies across West Africa.

“In Sierra Leone, it is more of a soup,” she said. “We do not make a base of sauce to make the soup. We go right in, put the water, boil the meat, then add the other ingredients. In Ghana I would say it’s a stew. They boil the okra separately and they put baking soda in it to make it more slimy, more thick like a stew.”

Another feature of Creole gumbo, the mix of seafood and meat in one dish, is also a feature of West African cuisine, though it is not common continent-wide, she said. “Throughout West Africa people do assorted meats, a lot different proteins. In East Africa I find they don’t mix two different proteins in one dish. They find it very strange.”

When West African okra soup arrived in Louisiana, it was quickly Creolized by the introduction of Native American and French techniques. Filé powder, the ground leaves of the sassafras tree, was long used by the Choctaw and other local ethnic groups in their cooking. Similarly, the French tradition of adding a roux — a combination of fat and flour — also became a staple — not only of New Orleans gumbo, but of many foods that Louisianians hold dear. Perhaps it is just coincidence that both of these ingredients impart not only flavor to a dish, but also additional thickness.

(Suspicious minds might wonder whether these early cooks were attempting merely to improve the flavor of their gumbos or to tip the scales in the soup-stew debate.)

The question of whether gumbo is a soup or a stew might well depend on where or by whom the gumbo was made.

In New Orleans, the home of Creole gumbo, the dish tends to rely more on seafood than meats, and tends to be thin when compared to its cousin versions from Cajun country. Cajun gumbo, which often relies on a combination of sausage and fowl for its protein components, tends to be thicker and darker. But even those broad definitions can be misleading or inaccurate.

Prejean’s in Lafayette features several different gumbos on its menu and, while they tend to be based on a darker roux than most Creole gumbos, they are also a bit thinner — more soup-like, if you will — than many of the gumbos found in New Orleans.

In a multitude of Gulf Coast homes, gumbo is the first course of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Regardless of its relative thickness or thinness, its place as the opening course of a meal suggests that we are treating it like a soup rather than like a stew. How often have you seen a stew listed among the appetizers at a restaurant or in a cookbook?

For the home cook, or the home diner, it matters little whether the dish being cooked or served is a soup or a stew. The people for whom this really matters are the people who have to write restaurant menus. In those texts, the offerings are divided neatly into appropriate categories — soups, salads, appetizers, entrées and desserts. Among the traditional Creole restaurants in the Crescent City, there is a clear consensus. Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Commander’s Palace, Galatoire’s and Tujague’s all list gumbo among the soups. Of course, since restaurants tend not to have a “stews” section, perhaps gumbo was placed among the soups strictly by default.

While the soup vs. stew debate is an interesting jumping-off point for an exploration of the linguistic and culinary origins of gumbo, it’s a question that is unlikely ever to be settled conclusively. Perhaps the great lesson here is that language is often an insufficient tool to capture the vagaries and nuances of the culinary art.