When speaking on the origins of Gumbo, perhaps the most celebrated of dishes in Louisiana, a hodge-podge of cultural and ethnic groups are usually given credit for its conception. And rightfully so.
For example, Africans are largely credited for Gumbo's name since the term "kigombo" is an African dialect word for okra – a key ingredient in many Gumbo recipes. The use of File powder as a thickening agent in Gumbo is credited to the Native Choctaw Indians who had many uses for the Sasafras leaves from which File is made. And of course, the French (by way of the French Acadians) are credited with the use of a roux as the base of any good Gumbo recipe.
But, there is perhaps one more group to add to this list of Gumbo progenitors – Filipinos. Filipinos first settled in the Bayou State in 1763, a very significant time in Louisiana history as it coincides with the arrival of the Acadians – a group of people who would later become known as Cajuns. Since October is Filipino American History Month here in the United States, I wanted to share my theory that, in addition to the Cajuns and the various ethnicities already mentioned, Filipinos also contributed to Gumbo's emergence as an All-American dish.
The Acadians were French colonists that settled in the area that was then known as Acadia (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) during the 17th century. By 1713, Acadian territories were ceded to Britain. As such, the British governor of Acadia eventually ordered the banishment of the entire French population of Acadia in 1755. What followed was an ethnic cleansing known as the Great Upheaval, forcing six to seven thousand Acadians from their land between the years of 1755 and 1763.
While the exodus of Acadians reached as far as the Falkland Islands, some Acadians were shipped back to France, some thrown in British prisons, and as many as 1,600 made their way to Louisiana. Over the next few decades, the Acadians intermarried with the local populace of Louisiana, and “Acadian” soon became “Cajun”.
Coincidentally, in 1763 (right at the end of the Great Upheaval of the Acadians) the first Filipinos to settle in Louisiana established a small fishing village known as St. Malo in what is now St. Bernard Parish. These Filipinos deserted and escaped Spanish ships that were crossing the Pacific for the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade. St. Malo was only the first of many Filipino communities that would soon sprout all around the Mississippi Delta.
The Filipino fisherman of St. Malo became known as “Manilamen” and began to make their living on shrimp boats. As such, these Manilamen introduced their Filipino methods of drying shrimp to the local Cajuns, methods that Cajuns still use today. And, like the Acadians before them, these Filipinos eventually intermarried with the local populace and a community of “Filipino Cajuns” arose.
Therefore, the arrival of Filipinos in Louisiana coincided with the arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana. Filipinos made their living on shrimp boats, introduced dried shrimp to the area, and became a large part of Lousiana’s shrimping industry. Filipinos eventually intermarried with locals and became further entrenched in Louisiana society.
So what’s all this have to do with Gumbo you ask? Well, given these facts, one can conclude that like the French Acadians (roux), Africans (okra), and Choctaw Indians (File powder), perhaps Filipinos (shrimp, maybe) can be included in the melting pot that is Gumbo. I won’t go so far as to say that Filipinos are responsible for shrimp being an ingredient in some Gumbos, but I will venture to say that Filipinos at least contributed to this fact. We were, after all, alongside the Cajuns from the very start in Louisiana.
Even though all of the dots seemed to be connected for a Filipino-Gumbo relationship, I needed an expert to crystallize my findings and translate the dots into a clearer picture. And there is probably no better expert on Filipino American History than Dr. Fred Cordova. Dr. Cordova is the founder of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) and is the author of Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans. Dr. Cordova is perhaps the foremost authority on Filipino American History, so I corresponded with him via email in hopes that he could point me in the right direction.
In my email to Dr. Cordova, I pretty much asked him if he thought I were crazy, or at least off-base, with my findings. I was fortunate enough that he replied with the following:
You are NOT off-base! In fact, every time I have gumbo, the Pinoy taste comes to my senses. There is no documentation of any kind to go on, but your constructive analysis is on target.
For that matter, who created the traditional Philippine lumpia? Filipinos? Or Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese? Our Philippine legacy, coming from an archipelago with many visitng cultural cards before the Spanish intrusion, is a rich amalgam of Malay genius. Even adobo, now found in Cuba and elsewhere in the colonial Mexican Gulf, is to our minds Ours.
So, in a sense, Louisiana is very much like the Philippines. Although they are two completely different places, their culinary traditions were both born from a multitude of ethnic groups.
The Gumbo pot is indeed a true melting pot – a cast iron crucible in which the many cultures of Louisiana forged a multi-ethnic, yet very American, dish.
The Gumbo recipe I provide below is just that–a straightforward Gumbo that I adapted from this recipe (don't roll your eyes, it's not like I'm an expert gumbo maker). I didn't go out of my way to use "Filipino ingredients" or to make this a "Filipino version" of Gumbo because well, in many ways, Gumbo already is a Filipino dish.
Shrimp Okra and Sausage Gumbo
1½ pounds shrimp (51-60 ct), with heads and shells
1 onion, halved
2 bay leaves
6 sprigs fresh thyme
¼ teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning
2 lemons, halved and squeezed
2½ cups cold dark beer (I prefer smoked Porter)
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 yellow onions, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 pound frozen chopped okra
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 (15-ounce) can chopped tomatoes, drained
2 bay leaves
3 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves striped from the stem
2 quarts Shrimp Stock
1 pound andouille sausage, cut into ¼ inch slices
1½ pounds reserved peeled shrimp
Chopped green onions for garnish
To make the shrimp stock: Peel and de-vein the shrimp, and toss the heads and shells into a large stock pot; refrigerate the peeled shrimp until ready to cook in the gumbo. Add onion, bay leaves, thyme, cayenne, Old Bay, and lemons to the pot. Cover with 7½ cups of cold water and place the pot over high heat. When the liquid reaches a boil, reduce the heat to low and let simmer uncovered for 45 minutes. Skim any foam that rises to the top.
Strain the stock through a sieve and into a heatproof container to remove the shrimp heads, shells and other solids. Add the cold beer to the hot stock. You should have about 2 quarts of tepid stock. Set stock mixture aside until needed.
To make the gumbo: Heat vegetable oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it begins to shimmer, 1½ to 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and gradually stir in flour with wooden spatula or spoon, working out any small lumps. Continue stirring the roux constantly, reaching into corners of pan, until mixture has a nutty aroma and is between the colors of milk chocolate and dark chocolate, about 20-25 minutes. (The roux will thin as it cooks; if it begins to smoke, remove from heat and stir constantly to cool slightly.)
Add the onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic, and okra to the roux; season with salt, cayenne, and Old Bay. Mix in the tomatoes, bay leaves, and thyme. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring now and then, until the vegetables are soft.
Add the reserved stock mixture in slow, steady stream, stirring vigorously. Increase heat to high; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, skim off foam on surface, and simmer uncovered, skimming foam as it rises to the surface, about 30 minutes.
Stir in sausage; continue simmering to blend flavors, about 30 minutes longer. Stir in shrimp; simmer until cooked through, about 5 minutes longer. Adjust seasonings to taste with salt, ground black pepper, and cayenne.
Serve gumbo in shallow bowls over white rice. Garnish with green onions.