Spicy Cajun chicken gumbo

The principal fresh ingredients for spicy Cajun chicken gumbo.

Where the name gumbo, the quintessentially Creole soup-and-rice dish which has been cooked for over three centuries in the Louisiana bayou, actually comes from is a matter of conjecture, particularly in the heartland of its genesis.

The dominant narratives suggest it originates either from African slaves, French settlers or Native Americans, and its origins revolve around the thickening agent used in gumbo.

The story goes that West African slaves prepared a stew consisting of okra – ki ngombo in the Central Bantu dialect of West Africa – and okra is the thickening ingredient in many gumbos. Since many gumbos are seafood-based, some say it descends from bouillabaisse – French fish soup – thickened with a roux, that quintessentially French mixture of flour and oil, in common use since the 14th century.

Another school of thought, however, suggests that gumbo has Native American origins. The Choctaws, whose word for sassafras is kombo, introduced the French to ground sassafras, called filà powder, which is used as a thickening agent in many gumbo recipes today. The Cajun influence on the dish, spicy seasoning, came about when about 3 000 of them settled in the bayous and prairies surrounding New Orleans in the mid-1780s.

While gumbo recipes in general have a number of common attributes – soupy consistency, heartiness, a thickening agent, spiciness, and a rice accompaniment – the combination of ingredients varies enormously.

One of my favourites is Cajun seafood gumbo, which I remember fondly from the 80s at a restaurant in Sandton called Fat Frank’s, which specialised in Cajun food. Many was the Friday lunch that ended after 6pm, by which time the Cajun seafood gumbo was a distant memory, washed away as it was, by an afternoon of camaraderie and beer.

Dear daughter Alex introduced us to a spicy Cajun chicken gumbo, which lends itself well to stovetop or poitjie preparation, which we decided to try out on Saturday evening. Since the no 3 poitjie pot was recently donated to Alex, I had to be content with stovetop preparation.

Ingredients, selection and preparation

8 pieces of chicken: legs, thighs or half-and-half, skin on because you need the fat

2 tsp salt

1 tsp ground black pepper

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp cayenne pepper

2 tbsp olive oil

1 whole chorizo: thickly sliced

200g smoked streaky bacon: sliced

4 plump shallots: peeled and finely chopped

1 each green, red and yellow pepper: deseeded and roughly chopped

4 celery sticks: finely chopped

3 tbsp plain flour OR 3 tbsp brown rice flour: for the roux

6 cloves of garlic: peeled and finely chopped

1 large sweet potato: peeled and roughly chopped

6 sprigs fresh thyme: leaves picked

4 fresh bay leaves

1 litre chicken stock

2 cups basmati rice

Method

Set the kettle to boil to make your stock. Combine the salt, pepper, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper and mix well.

Place the chicken pieces, chorizo and sliced bacon in a large mixing bowl, and sprinkle with the combined spice mix. Toss the meat to coat it evenly.

Heat the olive oil in a large, deep saucepan and fry the seasoned meat combination in small batches until nicely browned, then set aside.

Add the shallots, peppers and celery and fry until just soft, about five minutes.

Add the flour, stir it in well, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring regularly so that it does not burn or stick. Pour a cup of the hot chicken stock into the saucepan to deglaze it and lift all the lovely stuck bits off the bottom.

Add the cooked meat, sweet potato, bay leaves, thyme and chopped garlic, followed by the balance of the hot chicken stock, which should just cover the meat and vegetables.

Stir well, bring to the boil and simmer covered for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally.

While the gumbo is doing, cook your rice according to packet instructions. Serve the hearty, spicy gumbo in bowls with rice, garnished with fresh coriander, chopped parsley, or finely sliced spring onions.

Preparation time: 45 minutes

Cooking time: one hour

Yield: 6 to 8 servings