Food, glorious food, is a fun way to delve into the roots of a culture; to peel back the layers of influence and taste the history of a destination. The American South possesses a cuisine all of its own that reflects its climate, resources and varied residents over history, including Native Americans, European colonial powers and African slaves, not to mention borrowings from its Central American neighbours. Within Southern cooking are sub-cuisines like TexMex and Floribbean. This Foreign Cuisine Finder was spurred by my visit to Louisiana. These delicious New Orleans foods will give you a window into the State’s fascinating history and culture.
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Creole or Cajun, what’s the difference?
In case like me, you are new to The South, it will be far less confusing if I begin by explaining the distinction between the two Louisiana sub-cuisines. To understand the difference between Cajun (pronounced “kay-juhn”) and Creole (pronounced “kree-ohl”) cuisine, you have to understand the people behind them. Cajuns were French Canadians expelled by the British and who settled in remote parts of Louisiana, living off the land. In contrast, Creoles are city folk who were historically a mix of wealthy European expats mostly from France and Spain, along with Caribbean immigrants, and both enslaved and free African Americans. Therefore, both Cajun and Creole cultures developed in Louisiana and their cuisines apply similar European techniques to locally available ingredients, however, Cajun cuisine could be distinguished as simpler, and Creole as more refined. If you are sitting down to a meal and you want a practical way to determine Cajun from Creole, it’s in the tomatoes! Cajun cooking doesn’t use the red fruit, Creole does due to the heavier Spanish influence – it’s as simple as that!
Must-eat New Orleans food
Gumbo – the indiscriminate dish
Gumbo blurs the line between a hearty soup and a stew. It cannot be placed in the Cajun pot nor the Creole. Gumbo is a crossover in many directions. It’s a filling meal that can be prepared with ingredients on hand, making it as extravagant or as economical as the chef chooses. Gumbo is generally a seafood and/or meat stew, prepared with a rich stock and the “trinity” of vegetables: bell peppers (capsicums in my language), celery and onion. The mixture was traditionally thickened with okra or filé (dried and ground sassafras leaves) depending on the season. In fact, the thickening ingredient is the crux of the debate over the origins of the name “gumbo.” Some say it is a shortening of the African Bantu name for okra – ki ngombo, others suggest it comes from the Choctaw Indian name for filé – kombo. Whichever theory you subscribe to, a gumbo is served with steamed white rice prepared separately – an important distinction from our next food exploration.
Jambalaya – not a music festival tent
When I think Jambalaya, I think of one of the performance tent’s at the Byron Bay Bluesfest, a music festival in my homeland Australia. The name Jambalaya was of course chosen for its relevance to the geographic and cultural region where jazz and blues music originated. Though I’ve been inside that tent many times, I’d never had the opportunity to sample the dish until my trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
Jambalaya can be thought of as the Southern adaption of the Spanish paella. It’s a meat and rice dish usually incorporating sausage, with another meat or seafood. Again that “trinity” of veggies gets involved along with carrots, garlic, chillies and tomatoes – yes jambalaya is a Creole dish. It is theorised that tomato was originally substituted for the traditional paella ingredient saffron, due to availability. Once the meat and vegetables are browned and sauteed, a stock is added with rice and seasonings to cook all together in one pot.
Poor Boy – you won’t strike out
The Po’ Boy or Poor Boy as it started out, was created by the Martin brothers, former streetcar conductors who started their own restaurant. In 1929, streetcar workers went on strike for four-months and the sympathetic Martin brothers offered a free meal to any striking workers who came to their restaurant. They’d refer to the strikers as “Poor Boys” or at least that’s how the legend goes. They’d serve them a sandwich made with fried potatoes, gravy and scraps of roast beef on French bread. The Po’ Boy gained popularity and was added to the menus of restaurants about the Crescent City. Variations popped up with roast beef “debris” (off-cuts), sliced beef, ham, shrimp, oysters, catfish etc. Basically, this is the kind of affordable food that developed from anything the cook could get their hands on. However, from those in the know, a good Poor Boy contains slow roasted beef (cooked in-house), thick gravy and is lightly toasted. A “dressed” Poor Boy includes lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise and pickles.If you’re looking for the best Po’ Boys in town, Parkway Tavern, Mothers Restaurant and Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar are New Orleans institutions.
Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans invented the Muffaletta, a sandwich made with deli meats, cheese and olive salad on a round loaf cut into quarters. Central Grocery opened by Salvatore Lupo in the French Market circa 1906 is acknowledged as the official birthplace of the yummy sandwich. Depending on where you go they may be served hot or cold, and it’s all down to personal preference. We sampled the Muffaletta’s at Napoleon House, known for its variation served hot. I was expecting the sandwich to taste like antipasti but having been toasted as a whole sandwich it was just like pizza. Next time I’m going room temp, or somewhere that selectively heats the sandwich so as not to melt the cheese or fat in the cold meats which makes it very greasy. Note, Muffalettas travel well, which makes them a perfect picnic or takeaway option.
Beignets – the official state donuts of Louisiana
French colonists brought fluffy, sweet choux pastries known as beignets, to Louisiana where they were absorbed into Creole cuisine. “Hold up!” I hear you say, “what is choux pastry?” Choux is a moist pastry that rises with its own steam instead of using a rising agent such as yeast. Beignets are deep-fried squares of dough and are most comparable to a doughnut. In New Orleans, they are served with a generous dusting of powdered sugar and are generally accompanied by a cafe au lait. Cafe du Monde has a reputation for the finest beignets in the Big Easy, but their popularity means you may have a long wait among other hungry travellers.
Plan a trip to New Orleans
Gumbo, Jambalaya, Po’ Boys, Muffalettas and Beignets aren’t only delicious New Orleans’ foods worth trying on your travels, they are an expression of the history and culture of their origins. There aren’t too many better ways to learn about the world than through your stomach, so remember to venture out of your culinary comfort zone when travelling, and especially when you’re in New Orleans! If you’re looking for cultural experiences to burn off the calories between meals in NOLA, try these things to do for first-time visitors.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,