Gumbo with Tomato and Beans

Gumbo – sadly without the okra on this occasion as there was none to be had!

I don’t actually know what a real gumbo tastes like, or even an unreal one for that matter. The time we ate what was considered to be the “real deal” was in Hawaii. Yes, in Hawaii, no less. Hawaii is long way from Gumbos’ Louisiana origins, but the menu said it was Gumbo, and I’d always wanted to try it. Besides, I’m always looking for inspirational food that can be served in the zendo.

The flavour of this one was a memorable blend of red, peppery, and spicy notes infused with tomatoes, beans, okra, and accents of thyme. I always thought gumbo would be rather difficult to make, but the taste convinced me it must be possible without too much fuss. (Plus, it looked like it would be a perfect dish for serving in Oryoki – probably with less chillies though.) What initially seemed difficult suddenly felt a lot easier…

Later, back in the kitchen, I took a big stew pot, a few cans of tomatoes, several cups of cooked kidney beans, a few basic veggies – with the exception of okra, because there simply wasn’t any to be had – opened the kitchen cupboard and began picking and choosing herbs and spices that would fit the bill; the fresh taste of thyme and lemon zest; the dry, pungent heat of chillies, black pepper and sambal; and the almost medicinal bitterness of juniper berries and cloves. (These days, if there are no juniper berries in the spice rack, sometimes I can slip into the garden and pick a few from the juniper bushes in the driveway – providing the birds haven’t nabbed them already.) It turned out, well, almost perfect.

There is a Zen koan that goes: “The perfect way knows no difficulties. It simply dislikes picking and choosing“.* This is rather like making a recipe with some of the ingredients missing. In my case, that happens rather a lot… What to do then?

Luckily, we found okra on the city market – next time!

Gumbo needs to be HOT and SPICY enough to carry the flavours well. So unless you know some don’t like it hot, don’t be shy…

This recipe is still in beta format – so please test drive carefully!


250 g (2 large) carrots , or 1 carrot and 125 g okra (about 10 @ 7 cm / 3″ pods)
1 medium onion
1 green bell pepper
2-3 celery stalks
3 cloves garlic
1 heaped tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, or 2 teaspoons dry
1 or 2 red chillies, Spanish (mild) or habanero (hot)
800 ml (3 cups) canned chopped tomatoes, about 2 cans
250 g ( 1½ – 2 cups) cooked kidney beans
⅛ teaspoon cloves
6 juniper berries
3 bay leaves
Dash black pepper
Dash sambal (hot chilli paste)
½ teaspoon lemon zest
Olive oil for frying

  • Peel and medium-dice the carrots and onions.
  • Dice the celery stalks.
  • Deseed and medium-dice the bell pepper.
  • Peel and mince the garlic.
  • If using fresh thyme, strip the thyme leaves from the woody stem.
  • Deseed the chilli if you prefer a milder taste, and mince. (Use gloves if necessary, and be careful not to rub your eyes afterwards!) If using a habanero, keep it whole and cook with the sauce.
  • Slice the okra into rings.
  • Drain the cooked kidney beans, and rinse them if they are canned.
  • Crush and pulverize the juniper berries in a pestle and mortar.

  • Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan on a medium flame. Add the carrots, onions, celery, and bell peppers, and stir-fry until the carrots are tender and the onions and bell peppers are caramelized, about 15 minutes. Stir in the garlic, thyme, and minced chillies, and stir-fry until the garlic and chillies release their fragrance. Transfer everything into a stew pot.
  • Combine the canned tomatoes, kidney beans, bay leaves, cloves, juniper berries (and habanero if using), with the fried vegetables in the stew pot. Simmer over a low-medium flame for about 15 minutes to marry the flavours.
  • While the gumbo is simmering, take the same frying pan as before, heat a little more oil on medium-high flame and drop in the okra. Stir fry until the okra become golden. When the okra are ready, stir them through the gumbo.
  • Season with salt, a generous dash of black pepper, sambal, and a little lemon zest. Add more thyme if needed. Remove the habanero before serving.
  • Serve alongside white rice.


* A line from the “Xinxin Ming, a famous poem attributed to Chan master Kanchi Sōsan (6th century China), also used as a koan in koan training.

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