Cajun cuisine is seeped in diverse cultural influences as wide-ranging as French, Spanish, African and Nova Scotian. Two hallmarks of these cuisines are gumbo, a hearty soup, and etouffee, a stew of smothered seafood. Similar ingredients may lead you believe they are related dishes, however etouffee is spicier and gumbo contains some elements, such as okra and file (pronounced "fee-lay") powder, that etouffee does not.
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Soup Vs. Entree
Commonalities between gumbo and etouffee, such as tomatoes, a roux base, spices, onions, celery and bell peppers, may make it easy to mistake one for the other, however despite some shared ingredients, gumbo is a soup with a thinner consistency than etouffee, which is more stew-like. The latter, meaning "smother" in French, involves the smothering of seafood in a thick, tomato base which is eaten as a main dish.
Different Type of Roux
The combination of fat and flour, known as a roux, forms the basis of Cajun cooking. In gumbo, the roux is a dark, nutty brown color resulting from slow cooking. This imparts color as well as a smoky flavor to the finished gumbo. Etouffees, on the other hand, rely on a lighter-colored roux enriched with butter.
Single Main Ingredient Vs. Diverse Ingredients
In etouffees, the dish generally focuses on one treatment of an ingredient, such as crawfish or shrimp. One type of seafood is the centerpiece of this entree, which is smothered in a tomato sauce. Gumbos are more free-form and have a wider latitude of mixing different ingredients, such that shrimp may also be combined with poultry and native sausages, such as Andouille. Also, okra and ground sassafras powder tend to be found in gumbo, unlike in etouffee.
Both Served With Rice
Despite their differences, and possibly another reason why the two can be confused, is both gumbo and etouffee are served with rice. The rice is made separately from the dish in both cases, unlike a jambalaya, which incorporates the rice into the recipe. Either gumbo or etouffee may be ladled onto the rice.