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Gumbo’s Long Journey from West Africa

Raised on Louisiana gumbo, a curious food writer traveled to Benin to discover the dish’s origins in West Africa. Brought to the US by African slaves, the okra-based stew survived a very long journey and underwent a variety of modifications on its way to becoming gumbo. Louisiana gumbo carries on the essence of West African okra stew in that it provides a bowl of well-seasoned fish and seafood, meat and vegetables encased in a thickened sauce and is served with a carbohydrate. In Louisiana, it’s rice. In West Africa, it’s fufu, a sticky bread made from cassava used to scoop the contents from the bowl. But Louisiana’s gumbo is also distinct in that it starts with a roux, a French thickening technique made by cooking a mixture of flour and butter or other fat (in gumbo’s case, it’s cooked to an almost chocolate colour). The introduction of the roux to Louisiana gumbo stems from the Acadians (Cajun ancestors), French colonists who were ultimately exiled from French-Canada in the mid-1700s, eventually settling in Louisiana.