In the Deep South of the USA, writes Shane Mitchell, the way you make your gumbo depends on the answer to one question: who's your mama?

You'll need

900 gm large uncooked king prawns, peeled, deveined, shells and heads reserved 6 blue swimmer crabs, back shell and gills discarded, body halved and reserved, legs and claws reserved 175 ml (¾ cup) vegetable oil 150 gm (1 cup) plain flour 3 white onions, diced 4 large celery stalks, diced 1 green capsicum, diced 6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped 3 tsp Worcestershire sauce ½ tsp cayenne, or to taste 2 dried bay leaves 450 gm picked crabmeat ½ cup (firmly packed) spring onion tops, coarsely chopped ½ cup (firmly packed) flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped To serve: boiled medium-grain white rice, potato salad and Tabasco


  • 01
  • Bring 3.8 litres water to the boil in a stockpot, add prawn shells and heads, and crab claws and legs. Reduce heat to low and simmer until reduced by half (2-3 hours). Strain (discard solids) and set aside.
  • 02
  • Heat vegetable oil over low-medium heat in a large casserole or saucepan. Add flour and stir continuously with a flat-edged wooden spoon until mixture starts to change to the colour of cream (5-10 minutes).
  • 03
  • Continue to stir until roux begins to darken (15-30 minutes).
  • 04
  • Reduce heat to very low and stir continuously until roux is dark brown (15-30 minutes; be careful, mixture can quickly burn if left unattended).
  • 05
  • Add onions and stir until the liquid from the onions loosens the mixture (2-3 minutes).
  • 06
  • Add celery, capsicum, garlic and 60ml water and stir occasionally until vegetables start to soften (15 minutes).
  • 07
  • Gradually add 1.25-1.5 litres prawn and crab stock (reserve remainder for another use), stirring continuously to create a medium-thick soup base. Season to taste with Worcestershire, cayenne and sea salt flakes.
  • 08
  • Increase heat to medium, add crab bodies and bay leaves and simmer until crab is cooked (20-30 minutes).
  • 09
  • Add prawn meat and cook until just pink (1-2 minutes).
  • 10
  • Remove pan from heat, stir in crabmeat, spring onion tops and parsley and stand for flavours to develop (20-30 minutes). Remove bay leaves and discard. Serve gumbo hot with rice, potato salad and Tabasco.

"Gumbo is what your mama taught you," says Janice "Boo" Macomber. "And there are as many gumbos as there are mamas." We're drinking Miller Lites in the cluttered kitchen at Boo's fishing camp, a raised shack next to an alligator-infested canal that empties into southern Louisiana's Vermilion Bay. Boo, who grew up in Abbeville, has eaten gumbo her whole life, and it's one of the things she teaches at the New Orleans Cooking Experience, an informal culinary school for beginners.

The term "gumbo" is derived either from the Bantu "ki ngombo" for okra or the Choctaw "kombo" for filé, a Native American seasoning of finely ground dried sassafras leaves. Both make appearances in many versions of the dish. The origins of gumbo reflect the colonial-era migration of cooks and ingredients from Europe and West Africa to this low-lying state on America's Gulf Coast. It's a kissing-cousin of French bouillabaisse and Caribbean callaloo, but like most melting pot-dishes, gumbo lacks definitive pedigree. Okra and filé are primarily thickening agents, although they can both overwhelm more delicate ingredients, which is why some cooks leave them out entirely. 

Nonetheless, there are two immutable aspects that define gumbo. All recipes start with a roux and an onion-celery-capsicum mirepoix that Boo refers to as the holy trinity. A proper Cajun roux is a different beast from its French ancestor and takes much more time and patience. Browning flour is not a technique for the inattentive cook: when added to roiling vegetable oil, it requires constant stirring to prevent scorching, or worse, the volatile spatter that New Orleans chef Donald Link calls "Cajun napalm". A well-tempered cast-iron casserole is the best equipment for preparing gumbo. "One pot, one spoon, one plate" is Boo's line.

Boo gradually reduces the heat as the flour darkens in hue. The finished roux, she says, should be "the colour of the bayou after a heavy rain". It takes at least an hour to reach this stage. Sometimes I cheat by dry-browning flour in a skillet ahead of time.

The onions should be allowed to sweat in the roux for a few minutes before celery and capsicum grace the pot. Then stock is introduced gradually. Don't stop stirring, or else you'll get lumps. (A wooden spoon proves more effective than a whisk.) This is the stage when gumbo becomes a matter of personal taste. Boo, whose daddy was a shrimper, prefers seafood over chicken-and-sausage, rabbit or duck, which are some of the other classic gumbos found along the Gulf Coast. I clean partly steamed crabs and toss in the bodies. Another hour of simmering passes and more empty beer cans are stacked on the counter. Boo is down on her knees, head deep in a cupboard filled with Zatarain's cayenne pepper, Queen Bee "The True Cajun Queen" Seasoning and instant Community Coffee. "There's rice in here somewhere," she mutters. She emerges with a plastic sack of Mahatma medium-grain. It's the standard accompaniment to gumbo, although some Cajuns like to serve creamy potato salad as an auxiliary side. Louisiana falls squarely within America's rice-growing region. Half the year, fields throughout Acadiana - west of the Atchafalaya Basin, east of Lake Charles - are flooded for planting season. These also happen to be an ideal environment for raising crawfish, a close relative of yabbies.

"Boo," I ask, "Do you ever put 'crawdads' in your gumbo?"

She turns away from the stove and peers over her reading glasses. "A sacrilege," she says solemnly. "I never use okra or filé either. Just don't want the flavour taking over from the shrimp, the crab. But I like bay leaves. That's the difference between my mama's gumbo and mine."

At A Glance

  • Serves 8 people
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At A Glance

  • Serves 8 people

Featured in

Nov 2012

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