Filipino Americans and Gumbo

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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:

*****

Dear Marvin…

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.

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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

Shrimp Stock:
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)

Gumbo:
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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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  • Penelope October 10, 2007, 6:16 am

    Wow–I learn a lot AND satiate my taste buds (well, only the ones in my eyes, anyway!) all at the same time reading your blog!

    Reply
  • veron October 10, 2007, 1:16 pm

    I did not know that the
    filipinos settled in Louisiana! Very interesting. I love gumbo! But never use a plastic whisk in making a roux cause it will melt into it – hee!

    Reply
  • Ken October 10, 2007, 2:31 pm

    As a Cajun, from Louisiana, I’ll say this much: You have an argument for the dried-shrimp process. And the Cajuns pretty much took good ideas from anyone who had them. But adding shrimp to dishes — especially considering the French populations in question originated in coastal France and lived in coastal Canada — that might be a bit of a stretch to claim.
    Also, the gumbo recipe you use is much more of a New Orleas/creole sort of gumbo rather than a Cajun gumbo — Mawmaw would never put tomatoes or red bell peppers in her gumbo. And hey why ain’t you got dried shrimp in your stock!?!?
    Finally, while I’m giving unasked for advice, in Louisiana gumbo is served in soup bowls and the rice is practicaly drowned in the juice. There shouldn’t be a mountain of it with two shrimps stuck on top. (I know it doesn’t make for pretty food photography, but just saying.)
    Now, if we could just figure out which ethnic group is responsible for squirrel gumbo (I’m not making that one up).

    Reply
  • Burnt Lumpia October 10, 2007, 3:05 pm

    Thanks Penelope, I’m glad to provide info that people can learn from.
    Hi Veron, yes, Filipinos did settle in Louisiana! And it sounds like you know first hand about melting plastic whisks;)
    Hi Ken. I knew there would be someone to point out the creole/cajun aspect of my recipe and the other shortcomings of my post! And I welcome it as I know I wouldn’t be completely correct on everything. My intent in writing this post was not to ruffle any Cajun/Creole feathers, but that would probably be unavoidable considering the subject. My intent was to shed some light on the Filipino/Cajun dynamic. As far as shrimp being added to gumbo, I specifically said that Filipinos aren’t responsible for it, but definitely contributed to it. And I do know that tomatoes are more Creole than Cajun, but I happen to like gumbo with tomatoes! Thanks for the input Ken, I really do appreciate it.

    Reply
  • Jason Perlow October 10, 2007, 6:37 pm

    Very cool blog entry. I never knew Filipinos were a part of Cajun culture.
    Of course, now that I think of it, “Cochon de Lait” and “Lechon” are awfully similar.

    Reply
  • desie the maybahay October 11, 2007, 4:21 am

    wow, i didn’t realise filipinos were already emigrating way back. very interesting post.

    Reply
  • Ken October 11, 2007, 8:38 am

    BL,
    Of course you know that my feathers aren’t REALLY ruffled. I find it funny that there’s always ONE jerk who comes along and is like, “Blublublu, that’s not really the way it’s done.” And this time I’m the jerk. Heh.
    Anyway, it was an excellent post. I’m going to have to look around on your blog (this link was forwarded to me by HomeSickTexan) to see if there’s a recipe for that dish my old Filipina roomate got me to eat that one time … She said it was pig-snout in oxblood or something.

    Reply
  • Chef Chris October 11, 2007, 12:56 pm

    Very interseting post, and one other ethnic group who would’ve befriended Filipino immigrants in St. Bernard parish were the Islenos from the Canary Islands, the Spanish island province off the coast of Morocco. They would’ve spoken Spanish as a common language, and like the Filipinos largely lived off the bayous far away from New Orleans.
    Lafcadio Hearn wrote about the St. Malo fishing village when he visited Louisiana in the 1880s. Sadly the fishing village is lost now to the coastal erosion that ravages Louisiana, and only exists as a marker on fishing maps.
    As a New Orleanian, I would confirm that Gumbo is much more a soup than a rice dish, with the rice barely peeking up from a muddy bowl of seafood, sausages, okra and other good stuff. However, it’s good to give credit to Filipino heritage for dried tiny shrimp, which you still commonly see in N.O. grocery stores for the making of gumbo and other fast seafood flavored broths.

    Reply
  • ed b. October 12, 2007, 1:04 am

    a very interesting and informative post…astig!
    i just discovered your blog yesterday from seriouseats and i’ve been rummaging through your archives since then, reading your old entries/articles…a unique and funny peek at a fil-am’s view of everyday pinoy food that i usually take for granted here (in the Philippines).
    keep up the great entries/articles coming! 😉

    Reply
  • oggi October 12, 2007, 7:09 am

    I made gumbo maybe once or twice before, the one that’s more soupy, the recipe I got from my old reliable Betty Crocker.:D
    I have read several years ago about Filipinos jumping ship on the way to Mexico and settled in Louisiana and married the natives. I will definitely check out Dr. Cordova’s book to read more on this subject.
    Excellent post, btw.

    Reply
  • Burnt Lumpia October 12, 2007, 4:04 pm

    Hi Jason, thanks for stopping by. Your blog post on gumbo is awesome as well. I had to google cochon de lait, but yeah, I see the similarities. I wonder if that’s another connection?
    Desie, yes, it’s something I actually learned in college that was dormant in my head until recently.
    No worries at all Ken! And as far as pig snout, I think you are referring to sisig, although it is not cooked in any kind of blood. It’s pretty much fried pig’s face to put it bluntly. I hear it’s damn tasty though.
    Thanks for stopping by Chef Chris! I guess I did go a little overboard with the rice didn’t I? If I’m ever in New Orleans, I will definitely stop by the Delachaise Restaurant.
    Thanks ed! I hope you visit often.
    Hi oggi. Dr. Cordova’s book is worth checking out if you can find it. It’s mostly a pictorial, but it still offer a wealth of information.

    Reply
  • Rasa Malaysia October 13, 2007, 9:59 am

    I looooooove Gumbo and yours look fanstastic, especially you made the stock with shrimp heads and shells. :)

    Reply
  • Katrina October 14, 2007, 1:16 am

    Hmm…cochon de lait sounds just like lechon de leche, doesn’t it? But I wonder if the Cajuns were influenced by the Pinoys there, or if both Cajuns and Filipinos got the idea from the Spaniards? It’s really interesting to think about how, really, fusion cuisine has existed for centuries, even millenia. Thanks for this post!
    Ken, I think you’re referring to dinuguan, which is a pork dish (though I’m not sure if it uses the snout) with a sauce made of pig’s blood (hence the name — “dugo” is “blood” in Tagalog, so “dinuguan” is sort of like “put blood on” or maybe “bled on”). Was it a saucy, maybe even soupy dish, a very dark brown color?
    Sisig, as mentioned, is made out of finely-chopped pig’s face parts (I think cheeks and ears). It doesn’t have a sauce, and is soemtimes served on a sizzling plate. It IS very tasty, and very popular sa a “pulutan” (bar chow).

    Reply
  • Cynthia October 14, 2007, 8:42 pm

    This has been an informative and insightful post and such a pleasure to read. Thanks for the hard work, Marvin.

    Reply
  • Krizia October 15, 2007, 2:57 pm

    You make me proud such that there are tears in mine eyes :) !!! Beautiful, beautiful and informative post.
    P.S. The presentation in that last photo of your gumbo melts my oft-cold heart.
    P.P.S. Yes, please go to Magic Wok ASAP and then write about it afterwards so that I can live vicariously through it all over again!
    P.P.P.S. Some spamming hobos decided to overthrow my blog :( I do not know how they did it, but they did it. No lechon for them!

    Reply
  • margaux October 16, 2007, 8:32 am

    Jambalaya, crawfish, pie, Filipino gumbo … hee hee. This is a really, really great post. Guess the gumbo is what Doreen Fernandez would call an ‘indigenized’ dish, picking up from different cultures and made one’s own. Cheers, Pinoy!

    Reply
  • Wandering Chopsticks October 16, 2007, 12:05 pm

    Thanks for the history lesson. I remember the Filipinos in LA bit from “My America, Or Honk if You Love Buddha.” But I also remember their descendants not identifying with being Filipino. I guess after 300+ years of integration…but still, made me a little sad. :(
    I did not know gumbo had beer! Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever made gumbo, only jambalaya.

    Reply
  • Wandering Chopsticks October 16, 2007, 12:06 pm

    And P.S. How could you call for frozen okra? It’s okra season at the farmers’ market. I just bought a bag for VNese sour fish soup for only $1.

    Reply
  • Burnt Lumpia October 16, 2007, 8:50 pm

    As you know Rasa, shrimp heads and shells are awesome for stock!
    Thanks for setting me straight Katrina! I can always count on your wisdom of Pinoy food. You MUST start your own blog soon!
    Thanks so much, Cynthia!
    Hi Krizia, I’m glad you could gain something from this post. And damn those spamming hobos! I’ll change your URL in my blogroll.
    Hi Margaux. Gumbo is definitely multi-cultural.
    Dub C, gumbo doesn’t have to have beer in it, that’s just a lil sumthin I threw in. And I used frozen okra because I am lazy;)

    Reply
  • drjeff October 17, 2007, 9:45 am

    just came from New orleans… just my taste… never really like okra… i like the concept of gumdo just omit the okra for me.. but thats just my taste:)

    Reply
  • Charlie Ramsey November 16, 2007, 11:48 am

    I had no idea that Filipino had such an infulance on Gumbo. This was a great read.

    Reply
  • Lisa K. November 25, 2007, 11:31 am

    Hi! First time reader and commenter.
    I’m an Asian Cajun who grew up in Lafayette, LA. My mom and dad came to the States from the Philippines in ’66. We moved around, mostly the northern states, until they found “home” in Cajun country. And why not? It’s hot, humid, largely Catholic, hospitable, and moves at a pace slow enough for them to feel comFORTable.
    Bravo on your roux making. I agree that your gumbo’s more of a Creole recipe than Cajun, but I bet it’s tasty anyway ;o) And as a teacher, I appreciate that you’re sharing cultural and culinary history with your readers!
    I look forward to reading more in your archives!

    Reply
  • Burnt Lumpia November 28, 2007, 3:26 pm

    Hi dr.jeff. Yes, not everyone likes okra, so you’re not alone;)
    Hi Charlie, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
    Thanks Lisa K! Yes, being comFORTable is very important;) I hope you stop by again and often!

    Reply
  • Ruy December 11, 2007, 7:52 am

    Whoa! This post is so packed with impressive and well research info that I had to check if I accidentally clicked on National Geographic’s website! ;P
    Great job Marvin, it was a very entertaining, informative and intriguing read.
    You’ve just turned me into a fan.=)

    Reply
  • Irene February 11, 2008, 7:49 am

    What an interesting and informative post. I moved here to Cajun Country, Lafayette, LA four years ago and love it. Your Gumbo looks delicious!

    Reply
  • Rhonda Lee Richoux March 21, 2008, 8:41 am

    I came across this page while looking for Filipino American organizations in the New Orleans Area. I’m an Asian Cajun: my father is Cajun and my mother is from one of the oldest Filipino families in America. We are descendants of Felipe Madriaga of Ilocos Norte, who settled in Louisiana around 1849. Because all of the women in our family married Filipino men, we’ve been immersed in Filipino culture and tradition through the generations.
    Here in New Orleans, it wasn’t unusual for my Cajun relatives and Filipino American relatives to exchange recipes and add their personal flavor to them, so the idea that Filipinos contributed their own unique flavors to the family Gumbo!
    By the way, our family oral tradition tells us that Felipe Madriaga worked in the Filipino fishing villages of St. Malo and Manila Village, and that he and his Irish wife Brigett Nugent had a small restaurant at one time; I would imagine they had their own unique gumbo recipe!

    Reply
  • James August 21, 2008, 11:54 am

    Burnt Lumpia,
    You ain’t burnt yet. I’m with you that Pinoys had something to do with gumbo.
    Facts: 1) Pinoys introduced rice to the America’s during the galleon trade. And so Pinoys were the 1st to eat rice with something, be it soup or not.
    Rice is the very base of gumbo
    2) Gumbo was around before the 1900 & the Cajun diet contained very little seafood during that time.
    3) the Acadians came from Canada & gumbo originated in Louisiana area. Therefore, the only way they could have come up with it is by copying what others had. The French are very good at that & unfortunately they end up getting all the credits. I would like to know the types of food they had before they started colonizing “countries” around the globe.
    I’m sure over the years things have changed a bit. Example is the dried shrimp. During the early years of gumbo I bet there were dried & fresh shrimp variation but today because of the invention of the fridge & to avoid annoying your neighbor from the smell of sun-dried shrimp in the backyard, people have chosen to add fresh shrimp instead.

    Reply
  • James May 18, 2009, 6:50 pm

    To further support James comment,
    Watch this video in YouTube:
    Anthony Bordain No Reservations Philippines Part 3 of 5
    He said to one of the soup he was presented as “gumboesque”
    http://video.google.ca/videosearch?hl=en&q=anthony%20bourdain%20part%203%20of%205%20philippines&rlz=1W1GPCK_en&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=wv#

    Reply
  • becklund August 2, 2009, 8:57 pm

    Your gumbo looks great and healthier than the gumbo I make, maybe I just need to use more rice…

    Reply
  • howling September 15, 2009, 7:01 pm

    look at the cajun acadian flag!!! doesn’t it look similar to our philippine flag? looks like they copied it as well… ?

    Reply
  • Trinity January 25, 2010, 10:04 pm

    Years ago I saw a program on the History of Filipinos in Louisiana – I always joke with my Louisiana friends who look Asian and whose families always cook rice first thing in the morning – that’s – that Filipino influence from long ago.

    Reply
  • Marie April 20, 2010, 2:47 am

    the pics looks yummy 😀

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  • Cheap Stock Images Philippines January 11, 2011, 7:14 pm

    I agree. Looks very delicious and this are the foods that made Philippines popular when it comes to delicacies.

    Reply
  • Chacaroy March 13, 2012, 8:43 pm

    Perhaps a key question to ask is to what extent was the Cajun culture influenced by the Filipino co-existence? There are some undeniable commonalities between the two: 1) Both were driven out of their respective homelands; 2) both settled in the bayous before the Louisiana purchase; 3) both were Roman Catholics; 4) as howling mentioned, the Cajun flag resembles the Philippine flag more than the original Arcadian flag, which resembled the French flag; 5) gumbo is soupy, like sari-sari with rice and shrimp. (Was Arcadian food like this?)
    There apparently was mutual respect between the two ethnicities, judging from reports of intermingling and intermarriages. When I was in advanced infantry training in Ft Polk, for the first time I saw Cajuns. Some looked Filipino mixed.
    I would gamble a month’s salary that, while gumbo is the creation of the Cajuns, or a combination of cultures found in the area, a significant part was inspired by the Filipinos. Okra, for those who do not know, is widely used in pinkabet, an Ilocano Filipino dish. In fact, everything in gumbo can be Filipino except for the spices. The photo of gumbo in this article drew comment that it’s not gumbo because gumbo is soupy, and does not have mounds of rice. I chuckled because the photo shows gumbo on rice, the same as beef stew on rice, chili on rice, etc. Some rice eaters prefer to have soupy entrees served in a separate bowl. As for me, I prefer it dumped on my rice as in the photograph.

    Reply
  • Dr. Ron Doucet January 14, 2014, 5:22 pm

    You are right on for the Filipino portion but dead wrong on the Cajun part. It is the Creoles who influenced Gumbo not Cajuns. So many people now say Cajun this and Cajun that when Les Creoles were the ones responsible for many things that are called Cajun. They even want to claim Amede Ardoin and it is aweful. Stolen legacy has been the norm when it comes to these issues.

    Reply

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