These two famous dishes from Louisiana are similar yet so very different.

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Both gumbo and jambalaya are classic Louisiana dishes with Creole and Cajun roots. They're both filled with plenty of protein and have green bell peppers, celery, and onion as their base. While rice is an important part of each dish, the use of this grain is one of the main differences between the two. Roux and consistency are the other points of disparity.

Most Louisiana locals grew up with one or both of the dishes and have strong loyalties to their home-cooked version, which varies family by family, although some key ingredients and techniques remain the same. "There are countless variants that you'll find all over Louisiana. It's hard to find two Cajuns outside of a family that cook exactly alike," says Chef Anthony Goldsmith, the owner of Kajun Twist restaurant, with two locations in Louisiana's Cajun Bayou (in Galliano and Lockport). We spoke with Goldsmith to find out what the differences are between gumbo and jambalaya.

gumbo shrimp okra peppers
Credit: Martyna Szczesna

What Is Gumbo?

Gumbo is a stew filled with chicken, sausage, and salt meat (if it's a chicken gumbo) or crab, shrimp, and oysters (if it's a seafood gumbo). Gumbo uses some kind of thickener, usually roux (flour and fat cooked together until dark brown), but some people, like Goldsmith, use okra. His recipe comes from his great-grandmother Alzina Toups, a renowned Cajun chef in Galliano whose tiny one-room restaurant is only bookable by phone and has a wait list up to a year long. "The base is what the Cajuns call the 'Holy Trinity' (onion, celery, and bell pepper)," says Goldsmith. "Use chicken stock or seafood stock depending on the type of gumbo. Filé powder (dried and powdered sassafras leaves used in Native American cuisine) can be added at the end based on preference."

Gumbo is served over rice, but the rice is not cooked with the rest of the dish. "Gumbo is more like a soup, but for the Cajun people it's not considered a soup; it's a gumbo," says Goldsmith. "For my family, it is more of a starter dish to the main meal. Everyone has their own way to cook and enjoy it."

Gumbo reflects influences from French, Spanish, Native American, African, and Creole traditions. Louisiana Cajuns also adapted gumbo to their tastes.

jambalaya
Credit: Martyna Szczesna

What Is Jambalaya?

Jambalaya is a one-pot rice dish with origins tied to Spanish paella and West African jollof, which probably came from Spanish colonists and West African slaves. It also uses the Holy Trinity base, which comes from Louisiana's French influence, but Goldsmith says you can also add garlic, green onion, and parsley and season it with cayenne or red pepper flakes. There are two common variants of jambalaya: red and brown. The red, which is Creole, uses tomato paste and tomato sauce while the brown uses beef broth and no tomatoes and is considered Cajun. "The meats used can vary, but we use mostly smoked sausage or Boston butt (pork butt) and chicken, but you can really use any meat for it, though, like crab, shrimp, and duck," says Goldsmith. Some jambalayas use smoked tasso ham instead of sausage.

Most importantly, the rice is cooked in the jambalaya. After the base is browned, the broth is added. "To cook the rice in the jambalaya, use two cups of broth to one cup of rice for perfect consistency," says Goldsmith. "Be sure to cover the pot after adding rice and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring once halfway through."

What Are the Differences Between Gumbo and Jambalaya?

The main difference between these two dishes is their use of rice. Gumbo is really a soup or stew that's often served over a little rice, while jambalaya is made with the rice cooked into the dish, making the grain an integral part of it. In gumbo, there should be more liquid than rice, while jambalaya should not be liquid-y or mushy. "Jambalaya is a way to cook rice. It is usually a staple at get-togethers and is an easy way to feed large groups of people," says Goldsmith. "A gumbo is served over rice, often as a starter."

The other main difference is the use of a roux. While some people, like Goldsmith, don't use a roux for their gumbo, many gumbos do have a roux or other thickener, but jambalaya does not. "Each of these dishes were born from necessity. Long before our time, our Cajun ancestors lived off of the land. They could only cook with what they trapped, killed, or harvested from the area," says Goldsmith. "Both of these meals are hearty and very filling. They provided much-needed energy to the hard-working Cajun people."

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