If you’re not in the state of Louisiana, and you find yourself in front of a savory, zesty bowl of gumbo, chances are the cook has close ties to the Pelican State. The official dish of Louisiana, gumbo is a hotly contested specialty in the southern part of the state, a staple of Cajun and Creole cuisine for generations.
Although locals will tell you that the best gumbo is usually made by your mama, there are plenty of restaurants that do the dish proud and readers honored 10 of them in the 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards for Best Gumbo in Louisiana.
This dish identified with South Louisiana combines African, European and Native American cultures, according to the Louisiana Folklife Program, an education non-profit that conserves the folk cultural resources of Louisiana. The word itself is derived from the Bantu word for okra, nkombo, since the plant is used in most recipes to thicken the pot.
Although associated closely with French bouillabaisse, it was the enslaved Africans who added the okra so closely associated with the Louisiana dish.
There are a myriad of variations, but in general, a dark, almost black roux is associated with the prairies west of the Atchafalaya Basin and a lighter roux, or the addition of tomatoes, is tied to southeast Louisiana east of the Atchafalaya. While every chef has his or her particular gumbo, most start with a roux, and usually (but not always, in the case of “blonde” gumbo down the bayou) the darker the roux, the better.
Chef Luke Hidalgo got that memo. Hidalgo is the chef that readers say makes the best gumbo in the state at Hambone, the restaurant he owns with his wife Marci in Mandeville, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Hidalgo, a former sous chef at Commander’s Palace, adds his own spin on the classic Louisiana dish. It’s a darkly simmered stew of Gulf shrimp, ham hocks and collards, all topped with a scoop of pickled okra potato salad, an addition popular in Acadiana, around St. James, St. John, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes.
At Gris-Gris in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans, chef Eric Cook creates a daily gumbo so close to home cooking, you’d think your mama was close at hand. Cook, whose resume includes Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace and Tommy’s Cuisine, concocts a version that bobs with bites of chicken and smoked sausage in a dark chocolate-colored roux.
Mr. B’s, Antoine’s (where newly named executive chef Rich Lee presides), Curio and Copper Vine also earned reader nods in New Orleans. View this post on Instagram
Meander about an hour southwest of New Orleans, along the bayou, to try the gumbo at Kajun Twist. Bayou Lafourche is still the entryway to some of the freshest Gulf seafood, usually in the water just hours before it lands on your plate. Wild game, including alligator, is often on the menu, as well as local citrus and sweets like pecan pie – this is sugar country after all.
“Down here there is a different culture, a different people, our food is different,” said Anthony Goldsmith, chef/owner of Kajun Twist. “We are an hour south of New Orleans but some people don’t even know we exist. We are the real deal if somebody is looking for Cajun home cooking.”
To most Louisiana locals, gumbo is home cooking, the ultimate comfort food informed by grandmother’s kitchen and mama’s way of doing things. But thankfully, chefs can satisfy your craving, if your maw-maw is gumbo-challenged. Whether the roux is swimming with sea creatures including crab, shrimp and oysters or chock full of meaty chicken, sausage, smoked ham and veal brisket, gumbo is a Louisiana treasure, a culinary treat that is best enjoyed to the last drop.