Like many of you, I may have inadvertently interchanged Cajun and Creole as adjectives through the years, especially when traveling in the American south. Now that I am here in Cajun or Creole country, let’s try to make the correct distinction between the two, cuisines that is.
Cajun cuisine is named for the French speaking Acadian immigrants deported by the British from Acadia in Canada to the Acadania region of Louisiana. Their cuisine is considered rustic, using local ingredients with simple preparation. A real Cajun meal is a three pot affair. Pot one is the meat or main dish, one for the rice, special sausages, or a seafood dish, and one for the vegetables. Oh, and ground cayenne and fresh black pepper are ubiquitous throughout.
Did you know a holy trinity of Cajun cuisine exists? It is the three aromatic vegetables, bell peppers, onions, and celery. They are diced and combined similar to the French style, which combines, onions, celery, and carrots. Cajuns may also add parsley, bay leaf, green onions, and dried cayenne pepper.
Some typical Cajun dishes would be gumbo, jambalaya, and rice and (brown) gravy. Gumbo does not mean “everything in the pot” as some believe. Gumbo originally meant okra, which is used now as a thickening agent and for its vegetable flavor. Today’s gumbo is an example of the strong influence of African and Native American food on Cajun cuisine. Classic gumbo is made with chicken and andouille sausage, with a backbone of golden brown roux or Cajun dark roux.
Jambalaya always contains rice, some sort of meat, some seafood, and almost anything else. Often, green peppers and hot chili peppers are added. The rice and gravy dish is based on pan drippings used to make brown gravy. It is typically made from cheaper cuts of meat, which are slow cooked to tenderize the meat. Local varieties include hamburger steak, rabbit (sorry, Donna), and turkey necks.
Crawfish boil is a big Cajun event where Cajuns boils crawfish, potatoes, onions and corn in large pots. The boil usually contains a muslin bag of lemon, bay leaf, mustard seeds, cayenne pepper, and other spices for flavoring. The seafood is poured out onto a table covered with old newspaper or butcher paper, with the food eaten by hand. Many restaurant chains across the country are mimicking this style.
Louisiana creole cuisine originated in Louisiana as a blend of Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Native American and African influences. It is similar to Cajun cuisine (such as the holy trinity), with the Creoles tending more toward classical European styles adapted to the local fare. Cajun cuisine descended from various French Provincial cuisines of the peasant class, whereas Creole cuisine evolved from the homes of aristocrats. It is Creole cuisine that is most closely identified with the Nawlins culture of today, though it evolved from the pre-Civil War plantations.
More specifically, creole cooking uses the heat of peppers, citrus juice marinades, the importance of rice, and the introduction of beans. The Spanish and Italian influence was the use of tomatoes. The first Creole cookbook was published in 1885 by Lofcadio Hearn.
But in the 1980s, Cajun cuisine began influencing Nawlins Creole cuisine, personified by the popular restaurant of Paul Prudhomme called K-Paul’s Kitchen. I actually have dined there at lunch time, and have not a clue as to what I ate or drink that day. He launched a national interest in Cajun cooking. Today’s spokesperson for the fusion cuisine is none other than Emeril Lagasse. Isn’t etoufee’ just about the most interesting word you have heard lately?
Equally intriguing are the desserts that we have all come to know. Some of them are: bananas Foster (one of my favorites), beignets (another favorite from Cafe DuMonde), banana pudding, peach cobbler, pecan pie, pralines, Doberge cake, T-cakes, and bread pudding.
I think no matter what you order down here, Cajun or Creole, you cannot go wrong. It is one of the most interesting cuisines, enjoyable to eat, and even more fun to try to name all the ingredients. Just order a good wine or champagne to wash it down when it gets a little spicy. And save room for dessert.