Gumbo vs. Jambalaya: What Is the Difference, Anyway?

Roux-rich gumbo is distinctly different from jambalaya — in part thanks to its unique thickener. (Source: iStock / LauriPatterson)

For non-residents of Louisiana, the differences between gumbo and jambalaya are … blurry. But for locals, these differences help paint a picture of the region’s history, culture, and traditions — all of which are key to understanding the South.

History

While very similar Cajun/Creole dishes, gumbo and jambalaya have distinct origins. The first known instance of gumbo in a cookbook was 1802 while jambalaya didn’t show up in print until 1837. Both found roots in Louisiana, though suffer from somewhat muddy origin stories.

First, gumbo. A dizzying blend of multiple culinary influences and ingredients — including African okra, French bouillabaisse, and local seafood — gumbo is thought to be the result of immigrants attempting to recreate familiar cuisine with a whole host of new ingredients. The thickener commonly used in gumbo, filé powder (dried and pulverized sassafras leaves), is said to be of Native American origin, which puts the dish’s European foundation into doubt. Then there’s the issue of media misdirection, regularly countered by NOLA natives; as locals claim, quick-assuming, heavy-handed media too often — and falsely — assume Creole and Cajun dishes are pretty much all French in origin.

18th and 19th century NOLA was the epicenter of gumbo and jambalaya creation — and adaptation. (Source: Shutterstock / Glowonconcept)
18th and 19th century NOLA was the epicenter of gumbo and jambalaya creation — and adaptation. (Source: Shutterstock / Glowonconcept)

Suffice it to say that, whatever its origin, gumbo became a staple of southern Louisiana in the 19th century. Still, it flew quietly under the country’s culinary radar for decades. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when the U.S. Senate Dining Room added it to their menu, that it gained some notoriety. Most of the credit for gumbo’s popularization should go to Paul Prudhomme, however; the New Orleans culinary great wowed us with his rendition at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, teaching Americans that simple foods often have their own sophisticated appeal.

Next, jambalaya. This story of this dish is decidedly more European: In the 18th century, intermingling Spanish in NOLA’s French Quarter tried to make their native paella but without costly saffron. Instead, they used abundant tomatoes, converting the sun-gold yellow we all know as a signature of paella to a ruddy brown.

Jambalaya jumped to fame around the same time as gumbo, though for a slightly different reason. While the dish was content to remain both regional and humble, the governor pronounced Gonzales, Louisiana “The Jambalaya Capital of the World” in 1968, inaugurating the annual Jambalaya Festival and capturing the attention of chefs the world over.

Main ingredients

To the uninitiated, gumbo and jambalaya are pretty much the same dish. And yes, they do have many things in common: rice, seafood, sausage. But there are key differences. For starters, gumbo is generally not tomato-based, leaning on a “low and slow” sauté of the Holy Trinity before dark roux and beef stock are added. Thickening agents include okra and filé powder, while some combination of shellfish, sausage, ham, chicken, and greens are added for flavor. The final dish, seasoned with everything from garlic to oregano and cayenne pepper, is served rice that has been cooked separately.

 

Sassafras leaves, when dried and ground, become one of the key thickening agents for gumbo. (Source: iStock / kj2011)
Sassafras leaves, when dried and ground, become one of the key thickening agents for gumbo. (Source: iStock / kj2011)

As mentioned above, jambalaya leans on a tomato base — along with the Holy Trinity — for its rich, earthy base. (For more on the Holy Trinity, go here.) Meats and seafood are added and sautéed, then mixed with rice and enough stock to plump up the rice kernels. The dish is then simmered until the vegetables and rice are tender and meat is cooked through. Often, the same seasonings used in gumbo will land in a jambalaya, although this isn’t gospel; many a native will tell you the dish also requires several dashes of hot and/or Worcestershire sauce and a hefty pinch of paprika.

Popularized and modern versions

As with any dish of the ages, gumbo and jambalaya have both evolved. Different pockets of the Cajun and Creole communities of the South have updated (read: enhanced) these 19th centuries staples to suit their pantries, tastes, and the availability of ingredients.

For example, the Creole variation of gumbo has been known to use tomatoes while omitting celery. A meatless variation of gumbo also exists — owing largely to Catholics who were forbidden from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. The meat-free variations of gumbo rely much more on a variety of greens for its body, including mustard greens, spinach, and turnip greens.

In the age of fusion and culinary innovation, gumbo has taken yet a few more turns, with some restaurants going completely off script with the addition of creamy potato salad (yes, to the gumbo itself, but just before serving), squash, green beans — even spicy aïoli.

 

Cast-iron cooked jambalaya is quite popular, and often sees the addition of some interesting ingredients. (Source: iStock / LauriPatterson)
Cast-iron cooked jambalaya is quite popular, and often sees the addition of some interesting ingredients. (Source: iStock / LauriPatterson)

Jambalaya is not immune to widespread culinary experimentation either. While early differences in the dish’s preparation were limited to the inclusion of tomatoes (or not), these days you’ll find everything from sweet potatoes and chipotle peppers to artichokes and tarragon mixing up the pot.

In short, these dishes are so versatile they practically beg for variation. And much like the settlers to southern Louisiana did when originating gumbo and jambalaya, so, too, do devotee across the U.S., utilizing ingredients most familiar and accessible to them.

Recipes

There are so many recipes for gumbo and jambalaya available online, it’s hard to know where to start. Don’t worry; we’ll point you in the right direction. Below are several recipes for each we think are good showcases of the authentic dishes, as well as variations that struck us deliciously original. Prepare them all, one by one, and find the flavors (and ingredients) that work best for you.

  • Authentic Creole Gumbo (African Bites): This in-depth guide and recipe gives you all the guidance you need to make your first gumbo from scratch. We like this for several reasons, but primarily because it doesn’t unnecessarily embellish the basics and it provides clear, step-by-step instructions.
  • Vegetarian Gumbo (Food Network): This hearty variation on the classic still carries some of the heft every gumbo should — thanks largely to the plentiful addition of greens and black-eyed peas.
  • Winter Gumbo (Diversivore): Crab in gumbo? What about beets, squash, and artichoke? We can’t say it’s authentic, but it sounds intriguing — and a great example of the dish’s versatility.
  • Authentic Creole Jambalaya (Daring Gourmet): We love the pictures in this recipe, giving cooks a solid sense of what each step should look like. It’s also pretty nifty that the author is so specific about their ingredients, going so far as to tell you what kind of rice you should be using.
  • Vegetarian Jambalaya (Simple Vegan Blog): This dish isn’t just vegetarian — it’s also vegan. But no worries; you’ll get plenty of protein from the beans and ample flavor from the Creole seasoning.
  • Slow-Roasted Pork Jambalaya (Food & Wine): Pulled pork isn’t exactly the norm for an authentic jambalaya, but it seems like it would fit, doesn’t it? Try this recipe and tell us if it does.

Have other thoughts on what might inform the gumbo vs jambalaya debate? Send us a note at editor@southtosoutheast.com. We might even add your comments to the article!