In anticipation of next weekend’s SUPER big football game,(you know, the one we’re technically not allowed to mention because of the SUPER big trademark laws we’d be breaking) we’re taking a closer look at the cuisine of SUPER host, New Orleans. Whether you’re serving up some gumbo in a SUPER big BOWL or licking powdered sugar off your fingers thanks to some mighty delicious beignets, there’s a whole lot more to the cuisine and culture of Cajun food than beads and Bourbon Street. So fasten your taste-belts, we’re taking off on a Southern flavor adventure in this edition of FirstBites: Cajun.
Cajun vs Creole
First let’s take a moment to discuss the difference between Cajun food and Creole food. The two are often used synonymously, and while they have many similarities, they are actually pretty different. Cajun comes from the Acadian immigrants who began migrating from Canada to the Louisiana bayou in the early 1800’s. Since the Acadians were primarily farmers, hunters and trappers, Cajun ingredients draw mostly from items that would have been (and continue to be) readily available in non-metropolitan areas. Crawfish and catfish, for instance, can be found in abundance in the swamps of Louisiana. As such, it’s no surprise that these critters are a staple of Cajun food. While not as popular today, historically you would be likely to find gamier selections of meat such as alligator and possum in traditional Cajun food.
Creole food refers specifically to the cuisine popularized in larger Louisiana cities like New Orleans. Thanks to their easy access to the Gulf, these cities have long attracted travelers and immigrants from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and around the world; lending exotic spices, butter or dairy and more haute cuisine techniques to the already rich flavors of Cajun food.
Rice and the Holy Trinity
If you’ve ever confused jambalaya, gumbo and étouffée, don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s easy to mix up many of the main dishes in Cajun cuisine primarily because they all start with the holy trinity. No, you haven’t wandered into a cooking Sunday school lesson. The holy trinity is the term used to describe the combination of onions, celery and green peppers – the base for nearly every traditional Cajun dish. Coupled with the fact that the ensuing final delicious products are all served, in some form, with rice, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for Cajun confusion. Never fear, we’re here to help you sort it all out!
Traditionally, gumbo is a savory stew that contains slow cooked vegetables and shellfish, like shrimp. Shellfish is one of the most popular gumbo “meats” however chicken, sausage and other proteins can also be incorporated depending on what’s available. The base for most gumbos is a dark, nutty roux made with oil and flour. Some gumbos contain tomatoes, but most are thickened with the roux, okra or both. While rice is served with gumbo, the dish itself is soupy in nature with more additional liquid than jambalaya.
A distant cousin of Spanish paella, jambalaya is a rice-based dish full of spices, vegetables and lots of meat. Starting with the “holy trinity” of onions, bell peppers and celery, chefs then incorporate sausage, chicken, shellfish, tomatoes and spices like cayenne pepper and paprika and thyme. Once the ingredients are combined, rice is added to cook down with the mixture, giving it a thick, hearty consistency. Any good Cajun cook will tell you that making true jambalaya is an all-day process of chopping, stirring and most importantly, waiting for that pot to simmer down to perfection. So next time you order a bowl of jambalaya, take your time and savor each bite. A whole lot of love went into making it delicious.
You already know that Cajun food pulls from ingredients native to the Louisiana Gulf region, and that includes plenty of fish. Crustaceans like shrimp and crawfish are extremely popular in Cajun cuisine, but you’ll also find plenty of Catfish and other fresh water fish options on Cajun menus. Here’s a little warning, if you see crawfish as an ingredient in soups or other dishes, what you’ll end up with is the meat of the fish incorporated into the dish. However, for crawfish bakes or boils, the whole kitten caboodle is served, shell, eyes and all. Let an expert show you how to separate the head and remove the shell before you go trying any Beasts of the Southern Wild mealtime moves unsupervised.
There are plenty of kinds of meat used in Cajun cooking. Everything from chicken, to pork, gator to frog; but today we’re going to focus on a very special kind of sausage native to Cajun cuisine – Andouille. This uniquely flavored spicy sausage is dry smoked giving it a deep, rich base, and flavored with garlic, onions wine and other spices. It is equally distinct and delicious and is one of the flavors that people most commonly associate as being uniquely Cajun.
There are plenty of sweet treats available from street vendors in New Orleans and kitchens all across Louisiana. Since we can’t cover them all here, we’ll mention our very favorite – beignets. Think of the best glazed donut you’ve ever had. It’s light and fluffy, the outside has a little crisp to it, but the inside is doughy and warm and the whole things sort of melts in your mouth. Now turn that into a little pocket of dough and coat it with powdered sugar and you have yourself a beignet. These deep-fried delicacies are amazing served by themselves or dipped in jam, chocolate or whipped cream. If you’ve ever had a beignet and thought, “meh, that was just okay,” trust us, you had a bad beignet. Done well, they are the most practically perfect dessert/brunch item in existence. Do yourself a favor and order them again. You won’t regret it. Tip: if you’re going to a restaurant that serves beignets, they take about 20-30 minutes to make and are best served fresh. Make sure you let your server know at the beginning of your meal that you’re planning on ordering them so they can coordinate the timing of your meal accordingly.
Like any of the First Bites cuisines we cover here on The Dish, we’ve barely touched on the very tip of the delicious Cajun world. Do you have a favorite dish that we’ve mentioned here? What Cajun staples or hidden gems have we left out? Share your ideas and suggestions below!
FirstBites shares pictures, thoughts and advice about the foods and flavors you’ve always wanted to try. Hungry for more? Check out our guides to tapas, sushi, Indian food, brunch, Irish food, Mexican food and Ethiopian food, BBQ, and British and Swedish Food!