NEW ORLEANS — Decades ago, soon after moving to this city from India, Arvinder Vilkhu began telling his wife and children, “If we ever have a restaurant, we must have a curried gumbo.”
Vilkhu had tasted his first gumbo in 1984 during a job interview at a New Orleans hotel. “I was so much in love,” he said of the rich dish, something between a soup and a stew. He began developing his own distinctive version after immigrating here later that year.
But it wasn’t until 2017, when the family opened their Indian restaurant, Saffron Nola, on a restaurant-dense stretch of this city’s Uptown neighborhood, that he began serving his gumbo, bright with ginger, turmeric and cilantro.
“New Orleans wasn’t ready for Indian gumbo,” said Vilkhu’s son, Ashwin, the restaurant’s general manager. “It is now.”
This is an extraordinary time for the city’s signature dish. Gumbo, long a fixture in restaurants here, has disappeared from many menus as new chefs arrive with different cuisines and ideas, catering to a population remade by the transplants who settled in the city after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005.
But the chefs who have stuck by the dish are using the moment to stretch its boundaries by adding ingredients that defy tradition, bringing it fresh relevance. Many of the innovations reflect global influences on New Orleans cooking, particularly from South and Southeast Asia. This time of year, with the cooler weather and the start of the Mardi Gras season, may be the best time to sample them — and to appreciate gumbo’s long and continuing evolution.
Michael Gulotta, a New Orleans native, has resumed cooking the seasonal seafood gumbo he introduced as a lunch special last year at Maypop, his modern restaurant in the Warehouse district. It’s seasoned with lime leaf, fermented black beans and black cardamom, in homage to the Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants that have long flourished on the city’s outskirts.
“I served that gumbo all last winter,” Gulotta said. “People went crazy for it.”
Gumbo has existed in various forms across south Louisiana for centuries. It can contain any number of ingredients, depending on the chef and the season. But until recently it was rare to find gumbo that incorporated ingredients beyond a fixed list of proteins (fowl, sausage, local shellfish), aromatics (onion, bell pepper, celery — known locally as the holy trinity) and spices (cayenne, thyme, white pepper).
Gumbo’s flavor is further influenced by roux, the blend of fat and flour used to thicken the broth. It’s a French technique adopted by Louisianians, who often cook the roux so long that it darkens and takes on bitter notes reminiscent of Mexican mole. Sliced okra and the sassafras powder known as filé, a Native American contribution to Louisiana cooking, are also used as gumbo thickeners, either in combination or in place of roux.
All of which is to say that New Orleans gumbo welcomed considerable variation and interpretation even before chefs and home cooks started to add collard greens and Vietnamese fish sauce to their pots.
The pale-roux gumbo with shrimp, crab and oysters that Billy Thurman, a commercial fisherman, cooks at home in Meraux, a 25-minute drive down the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, has little in common with the inky brown duck-andouille gumbo served at Upperline, a traditional restaurant in Uptown.
“Everybody likes it different,” Thurman said as he stirred his roux with a rubber spatula.
That a single dish can encompass such a broad spectrum of flavor is a big part of gumbo’s enduring local appeal. “Of all the many dishes in Louisiana cooking, gumbo is the one that most singularly defines us,” said Frank Brigtsen, the chef and an owner of Brigtsen’s Restaurant, where rabbit filé gumbo has been a signature offering for 25 years.
Brigtsen echoes the sentiments of local chefs who came of age, as he did, in the 1980s and ’90s. In those years, the city’s economy realigned around tourism and the rising national fame of its restaurants and chefs. It would have been unthinkable for a restaurant serving New Orleans food to leave gumbo off its menu.
Emeril Lagasse, arguably the most famous chef to come out of New Orleans, has served gumbo at all of the 18 restaurants he has opened since he started his empire in 1990.
But in recent years, gumbo has become less omnipresent in New Orleans restaurants, as a new generation of chefs has come to prominence, many of them unfettered by entrenched customs.
In the last half-decade, chefs Sue Zemanick, Alon Shaya, Justin Devillier and Nina Compton have all been named Best Chef in the South by the James Beard Foundation. None operated a restaurant at the time that prominently featured gumbo.
“People here take gumbo very personally and seriously, and I’m not from here,” Compton said. The chef, whose cooking bears the accents of her native St. Lucia, in the eastern Caribbean, was explaining why she doesn’t serve gumbo at either of her New Orleans restaurants, Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro. “It’s not worth upsetting people.”
Yet gumbo’s roots run back through the West Indies. While Europeans have long taken credit for inventing the dish, its origins are largely African and Caribbean; the Africans who passed through the city’s slave markets did much of the cooking in a French colony that, unlike its Anglo-American neighbors, reveled in good food.
“At its core, gumbo is West African,” said Howard Conyers, a New Orleans pitmaster, scholar and rocket scientist, as well as the host of the PBS web series “Nourish.” Conyers points out that gumbo’s name derives from the word for okra in many Bantu languages spoken throughout Africa — and that the slave trade brought the okra plant to North America.
“You see a version of a gumbo in Haiti, you see a version in Senegal, you see a version in South Carolina,” he said. “What you don’t see, except in Louisiana, is all this other diversity in the pot. That’s what makes it better.”
Leah Chase, the 96-year-old chef and co-owner of the Creole restaurant Dooky Chase’s, said it took time for gumbo to migrate from home cooks’ stoves to New Orleans restaurant menus.
“When I started working in a restaurant in 1940-41, I don’t remember seeing gumbo served all over like it is now,” Chase recalled. Dooky Chase’s light-brown gumbo, packed with shrimp, crabs, ham, veal stew meat, chicken and two kinds of sausage, is based on Chase’s grandmother’s recipe. “I serve what Creoles of color generally made for gumbo,” Chase said, using a term that refers to mixed-race descendants of West African, French and Spanish citizens of New Orleans.
By contrast, Jordan Ruiz’s crab-and-redfish gumbo at the Munch Factory, his restaurant in the Lower Garden District, is much darker and comparatively austere. “That’s the way my mom and her mom made it for decades,” said Ruiz, who is also Creole.
The dark-roux gumbos that chef Donald Link serves at his five New Orleans restaurants, including Herbsaint and Cochon, are reminiscent of what he grew up eating in Cajun country, west of New Orleans.
It’s the style Link prefers, though his conception of what gumbo is has expanded as he has researched the dish’s roots during numerous trips to the Caribbean. He is still experimenting: At his Uptown home on a recent afternoon, he cooked a roux-less seafood gumbo for just the second time in his life.
“Cajun country and New Orleans have almost, like, a gumbo rivalry, as if one gumbo is better than the other,” Link said as he prepared crab shells for seafood stock.
His popular black-eyed pea and pork gumbo with braised collard greens is often praised by younger chefs who say it has provided them cover to test new gumbo ingredients.
“I first made that back when we were making a ‘gumbo of the day’ at Herbsaint” in the early 2000s, Link said. “People didn’t seem to mind.”
While change is built into a dish that has been repeatedly altered over generations, some chefs’ experiments are raising questions about what qualifies as gumbo and what does not.
At Turkey and the Wolf, a popular sandwich shop in the Irish Channel neighborhood, Mason Hereford cooks a gumbo that is notable for containing ingredients that purists consider heretical, including tamarind paste, potato chips, Worcestershire sauce and, occasionally, leeks.
“I don’t recall anyone eating it and saying it’s gross,” Hereford said. “But I have had people eat it and say, ‘This is not gumbo.’”
As similar innovations mature into standard operating procedures, fewer diners may question gumbos like Hereford’s. Another rising young chef, Marcus Jacobs of Marjie’s Grill, considers the smoked chicken and Thai curry gumbo he serves as a holiday special to be one of the more conventional items on a menu largely inspired by trips to Southeast Asia.
“People love it,” he said. “It’s relatable.”
Recipe: Creole Redfish Gumbo
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: About 2 1/4 hours
For the roux:
1 1/2 cups vegetable or canola oil
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
For the gumbo:
1 large yellow or white onion, chopped
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 cup chopped celery
1/3 cup chopped garlic
3 quarts shrimp stock or seafood stock
1 pound small blue crabs, or substitute 1/2 pound fresh lump crab meat
1/4 cup gumbo filé powder
6 dried bay leaves
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh or dried thyme
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon ground cayenne, or to taste
2 pounds small or medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails removed
1 1/2 pounds redfish, black drum or other medium-firm, white-flesh fish fillets (such as sea bass or haddock), skin removed, cut into bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons Creole seasoning (such as Tony Chachere’s)
2 cups freshly shucked oysters with their juices, or substitute 1 (16-ounce) container shucked oysters
1 teaspoon hot sauce (such as Tabasco)
Cooked white rice, for serving
1/2 cup chopped scallions, for serving
1. Prepare the roux: In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high until it’s just shy of smoking. Slowly shake the flour into the oil, whisking until smooth. Reduce the heat to medium and continue whisking until the roux is a deep dark brown, 20 to 30 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary to prevent burning.
2. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic. Cook another 10 minutes, stirring constantly.
3. Stir in the stock. Bring to a boil and add the crabs (if using whole blue crabs), gumbo filé, bay leaves, salt, thyme, Worcestershire sauce and cayenne. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the flavors have melded, skimming off any foam or skin on the surface, about 1 hour.
4. Toss the shrimp and fish with the Creole seasoning and stir into gumbo, along with the oysters and crab meat (if using). Simmer until the shrimp and fish are cooked, about 10 minutes. Add the hot sauce. Taste and season with more salt and hot sauce if necessary. Divide among soup bowls and top with rice and scallions.
Recipe: Black-Eyed Pea and Pork Gumbo
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
For the roux:
3/4 cup peanut or vegetable oil
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
For the gumbo:
1 cup diced white or yellow onion
1/2 cup diced green bell pepper
1/2 cup diced celery
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 quarts pork or chicken stock, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon gumbo filé powder
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons ground white pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons chile powder
1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cayenne
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon lard or olive oil
3/4 pound okra, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
1 cup homemade or store-bought cooked and drained black-eyed peas
1 cup braised collard or mustard greens
1 1/4 pounds homemade or store-bought smoked pork butt or shoulder, chopped
Steamed rice or potato salad, for serving
1. In a large pot, heat the peanut or vegetable oil over medium-high. Slowly whisk in the flour and continue whisking until the roux turns dark red and begins to turn brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Add the onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic to the roux and cook, stirring, until vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Add the stock, dried spices and bay leaves, and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Simmer over medium-low, skimming occasionally, until flavors meld, at least 45 minutes.
3. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the lard or olive oil over medium-high. Add the okra and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
4. Taste the gumbo: It should not be pasty or taste overwhelmingly of the roux. If it does, you may need to add more stock, up to 4 cups. (The strength of starch in the flour can vary.) If you add more stock, start with just a cup, simmer and stir for a few minutes, and taste the gumbo again. Repeat as needed.
5. Stir the okra, black-eyed peas, greens and pork into the gumbo. Return to a simmer, season with salt and pepper and adjust the spices, if necessary. Serve over steamed rice or potato salad.