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What Is the Difference Between Gumbo and Jambalaya?

We turned to an expert on New Orleans cooking to get to the bottom of what separates gumbo from jambalaya. 
By Published May 2, 2022

What ties gumbo and jambalaya together? Louisiana tradition.

Whether it's traditional Cajun cooking hailing from the prairies and bayous of southwest Louisiana or the revered Creole cuisine of the Crescent City, the litany of famous Louisiana dishes is long and mouthwatering: Po’ boys stuffed with roast beef, fried seafood, or hot sausage. Muffulettas stacked with Italian cured meats and olive salad. Boudin sausage eaten in the car on I-10 with a care package of smoked andouille in the passenger seat. Crawfish étouffeé and shrimp creole gleaming in the finery of storied French Quarter institutions. 

Standing out among them all, gumbo and jambalaya are perhaps the quintessential examples of Louisiana cuisine, and there are Cajun and Creole varieties of both. A newcomer, uninitiated in the local foodways, could be forgiven for, say, walking into Mother’s Restaurant in New Orleans, looking at the menu, and thinking to herself, “I know I have to try gumbo and jambalaya while I’m here, but I’m not sure I know the difference?”

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After all, both gumbo and jambalaya commonly include some combination of sausage, chicken, shrimp, and rice. Depending on the version, both gumbo and jambalaya will also likely include the Louisiana “trinity,” a mix of chopped onion, bell peppers, and celery analogous to French mirepoix or Spanish sofrito. 

So when it comes to jambalaya vs. gumbo, what’s the essential difference?

I enlisted the help of an expert to walk us through it. Pableaux Johnson—Cajun native son turned NOLA guidebook author and photographer of "second lines" and Mardi Gras Indians—is just the man to school us on what the difference is between gumbo and jambalaya. After all, this is a man who wrote a book called Eating New Orleans and who’s traveled the country with the express mission of spreading the tradition of red beans and rice on Mondays. This is a man seasonally known as “Gumbo Claus” who, each Christmas, smokes a flock of birds to simmer up gallons of his signature turkey gumbo to give to those lucky enough to know him.

What is gumbo?

Gumbo is not precisely a soup or a stew. Pableaux has spent a huge percentage of his life either making, talking about, or writing about gumbo, and he hints at a certain elusive quality specific to gumbo, one that generic names like soup or stew can’t capture. Here, Pableaux echoes another native Cajun, Paul Prudhomme.

On his classic television show Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, Prudhomme says of gumbo that “it’s a soup but it’s not a soup. It doesn’t taste like any soup you’ve ever had.” And according to Prudhomme, there’s a clear component of the gumbo that yields that signature, enchanting taste. The thing that sets it apart, what Prudhomme calls “the key to the Gumbo,” is the roux.

What is jambalaya?

Jambalaya is a one-pot dish that includes a combination of sausage, chicken, shrimp, and rice. Like gumbo, it starts with the trinity base of onion, celery, and peppers. Thanks to the inclusion of andouille sausage, which originated in Louisiana, jambalaya tastes smoky, spicy, and earthy.

Jambalaya descended from paella, which was brought by Spanish immigrants to New Orleans in the early 18th century. There are two main categories: Creole, also known as “red” jambalaya, contains tomato. Cajun, known as “brown” jambalaya, omits tomato and uses beef broth.

What is the difference between gumbo and jambalaya?

The two main differences between gumbo and jambalaya are the rice and the roux: Gumbo starts with a roux and is almost universally served over rice (but not too much rice that it detracts from the gumbo). Jambalaya usually doesn’t include a roux and the rice is cooked with the rest of the ingredients (instead of being an accompaniment).

The Rice

According to Johnson, the difference between gumbo and jambalaya boils down to this: “It all depends on how you treat the rice. Gumbo is somewhere between a stew or soup . . . and it’s almost universally served over a bit of cooked rice. Jambalaya is different; more like a paella. A composed rice dish where everything is cooked together. The broth is used to cook the rice.”

To illustrate his point, Pableaux tells me to think about the difference between an Indian curry (which is usually spooned over fully cooked rice) and a biryani (where the rice is typically cooked into the dish with the other ingredients). Though he acknowledges that the analogy isn’t perfect, it is instructive. In this analogy, gumbo is the curry and jambalaya is the biryani

. . . gumbo and jambalaya are perhaps the quintessential examples of Louisiana cuisine, and there are Cajun and Creole varieties of both. 

The Roux

Simply put, a roux is a mixture of flour and fat that’s cooked to varying degrees to achieve a spectrum of browning. Cover your eyes and crack the spine of most any Louisiana cookbook, and chances are that you’ll land on a recipe that starts by making a roux. But while most every gumbo starts with a roux (exceptions include gumbos thickened only with okra or filé powder), most jambalaya recipes do not (though some certainly do), offering another point of differentiation between the two besides the cooking of the rice.

A chocolate-colored roux

A “blonde roux”—like that used for béchamel sauce—isn’t browned at all; a “peanut butter roux”—commonly used for seafood étouffeés—is browned to a medium degree of color; and a dark or “chocolate roux”—the kind most often used for gumbos and the kind we employ in our recipe for Slow-Cooker Chicken and Sausage Gumbo—is fried and constantly stirred until deeply toasted.

In Louisiana cooking, rouxs are not only used to thicken stocks or sauces but they are also employed as flavoring agents themselves, with the browned flour adding toasty depth and complexity and the fat carrying the flavor of the mixed herbs and seasonings throughout the dish. A lighter roux has more thickening power and adds less flavor, while a darker roux offers less thickening for the same amount of liquid yet adds much more flavor.