It’s time for another item on the DC Omnivore 100 list of the top one hundred foods every good omnivore should try at least once in their lives.
Let’s see, everyone’s a bit chilly and in need of some rib-sticking stew to belly up before digging yourself out of all this snow, and hey didn’t someone tell me a certain football team from New Orleans won some big deal game last night? So yes, I think it’s time for some gumbo!
Gumbo’s one of those culinary dishes that gives literal meaning to the phrase “America’s melting pot.” A wide variety of influences – Cajun, Creole, Indian, African, French – all come together in a substantial and delicious stew. There are as many different versions of gumbo as there are cooks; even the name’s origins are varied. Is “gumbo” from the Angolan word for okra, or the Choctaw word for sassafras? Should the predominant color be red or green?
There are a few key ingredients that everyone seems to agree have to be present – beyond that, it’s a dish you can have fun experimenting with! And if you aren’t culinarily inclined, there are several restaurants in DC that you can snuggle up in with a pot of gumbo and pretend you’re in New Orleans… so let’s dive in.
Most agree that gumbo as we know it originated in the grand city of New Orleans, my favorite American city after beloved DC, and its ingredients mirror the city’s merging cultures. You’ve got the French soup style of bouillabaisse marrying the Spanish “holy trinity” of onion, celery and bell pepper with the Choctaw sassafras or file powder spicing it all up – or instead of the file powder, the African vegetable okra, especially in the winter. I personally prefer the distinctive richness that okra gives gumbo.
Besides the base of a roux, the trinity, and spice or okra, then you have the various protein combinations. Typically it’s an assortment of shellfish (mainly shrimp), chicken, and pork (mostly sausage like andouille). There’s even a version with just greens for the Lenten season (Gumbo Z’Herbes), though I’ve never seen that outside of New Orleans, it would be fun to try for the vegetarian chef. Gumbo is usually served over plain white rice – the proportions being left up to the cook. Crusty French bread completes the meal. Did I mention it’s substantial?
There are some great recipes out there, but let’s say you just aren’t in the mood to whip up a roux yourself. I have to sheepishly admit that my favorite place to get gumbo is actually downtown lunchtime spot Lawson’s, which features gumbo practically year-round as one of its three soup options at the salad bar. There are some hardcore lovers of this gumbo always lining up for the replacement pot, and I’m one of them as Lawson’s uses lots of okra, chicken and andouille sausage. In the mid-range, Bardia’s New Orleans Cafe serves it up (and you get the added benefit of being able to order gut-busting beignets afterwards), whereas for something more upscale hit Acadiana. And you can even get the file powder version at Johnny Half Shell.
So there you have it, the perfect stew for a wintery day. Please share your favorite places to get gumbo too!