The word Gumbo is related to the word for okra in some West African languages. And the idea of Gumbo — of a rich stew (often fish-based) thickened by okra — originated in West Africa, as well. The notion and traditions of this stew traveled to Louisiana with the West Africans who were brought here, and that has translated over time into what we know as “Gumbo.”

Interestingly, the original West African version of the stew did not contain any pork product. Instead, that smoky umami quality was brought together through dried smoked fish, considered both a staple and a delicacy in West Africa. It can be difficult to find here in the States, but it can usually be found in Caribbean and African groceries.

Fish Stock Ingredients

  • 1 large fish head (about 2 pounds, or the equivalent in weight of smaller heads)
  • 12 ounces spring onions, white and green parts sliced into rings (or 1 1/2 bunches scallions)
  • 10 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 2 bay leaves

Gumbo Ingredients

  • 1 recipe fish stock (see recipe)
  • 1 large piece smoked, salted dried fish (see note above for purchasing)
  • 3 Indian eggplants or very small conventional eggplant (about 8 to 10 ounces)
  • 2 cups sliced okra, about 6 ounces (cut into 1/2-inch rounds)
  • 2 to 3 small hot fresh chiles, or more, to taste (Thai bird chiles or similar)
  • 1/2 cup palm oil
  • 1 dozen littleneck clams
  • 1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 3 squid, bodies cleaned and separated from their tentacles
  • 6 cups cooked whole grain rice

Fish Stock Instructions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a stockpot with water to cover. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Skim the scum that rises to the surface and discard. Cook at a bare simmer for about 1 hour.
  2. Remove the fish head and set on a plate to cool. Remove the skin and pick the meat off of the bones.

Gumbo Instructions

  1. Keep the fish stock at a simmer over medium-low heat while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
  2. Add the piece of smoked dried fish into the broth, and add in the eggplants, whole. Cover the pot with the lid. The eggplants will braise in the liquid.
  3. Put the okra in a mortar and pestle. Crush it to release the “slime” and to pulverize it. Tear the chiles and add them, seeds and all, to the mortar and pestle. Smash them with the okra really well. After about 5 minutes, it should look like a gelatinous, pulverized mixture.
  4. Add the okra mixture to the broth. Keep at a good simmer to allow the okra to thicken the broth.
  5. Add the palm oil. It may seem like a lot, but it will emulsify with the okra creating a creamier stew. Simmer the mixture for 10 minutes more until it’s slightly thicker.
  6. Add the clams and the picked meat from the fish head to the pot. Cover and cook for about 7 to 8 minutes until the clams open up.
  7. Add in the shrimp and stir, add the whole squid bodies and tentacles. Cook for 3 minutes. Both the shrimp and squid bodies should be just cooked, not overcooked.
  8. Serve immediately over cooked whole grain rice.

Tips and Techniques

Using a mortar and pestle to pulverize the okra releases aroma and develops the gelatinous texture that will thicken the stew. Spend a little extra time on this step.