Creole and Cajun Cooking
I'll be honest - I'm a little intimidated by Southern cuisine. Each area of the South has its own unique flavors and aromas, ingredients and methods that set it apart from the others. And being but a humble suburban Northerner, the idea of delving into the goings on of the Southern kitchen is all out frightening.
However, being the go-getter that I am, I've decided to tackle southern cuisine one region at a time - and where better to start than Louisiana? A state with a fascinatingly rich culture and history, there are two main genres of cooking that have emerged: Creole and Cajun. And although the mainstream media have commercialized the idea of Cajun to mean anything that is spicy (i.e. McDonald's Spicy Cajun McChicken), these two cuisines each have their own methods, ingredients and histories that produce much more complex flavors than simply "spicy."
Creole History One of the main distinctions between Creole and Cajun cuisine is the origin of the people who created them. Creole cuisine was born from European aristocrats who moved to New Orleans in the late 1600s. Melding lifestyles as well as culinary influences, a new culture was born. These people became the upper-class of the city and their descendants can still be found in the French Quarter of New Orleans today.
The word Creole comes from the Spanish word criallo meaning a mixture of cultures or colors (as in the word Crayola) and from the Latin creare meaning to create (as in a new race). The mix of cultures included Native Americans, French, Spanish, English, African American, German and Italian.
Because the Creole were people of privilege, the ingredients in their cuisine reflect a more sophisticated and expensive palate. The veritable melting pot that was merging in New Orleans during the end of the 17th Century created a fusion of foods. Dishes that we now recognize to be uniquely Creole are each contributions from different European cultures and truly illustrate the evolution of the dishes.
From the French bouillabaisse came gumbo
From the Spanish paella came jambalaya
German influence brought sausage and dairy
Italians introduced ideas of pastry and ice cream
West Indian and Haitian techniques of braising and slow cooking influenced the preparation of gumbo
Native Americans added spices and flavoring of corn, bay leaves and filé powder
African Americans introduced okra to the dishes
While there is a fair amount of overlap in some Cajun and Creole cooking, there are also some uniquely Creole dishes that should not be mislabeled.
The history of the Cajun people is almost the exact opposite of the Creole, whose lives were filled with privilege (and private chefs). The people who became known as Cajuns were exiled French refugees who immigrated to south Louisiana from Acadia, Nova Scotia in the 18th Century. Because they were immigrants forced from their homeland, their cuisine - and their livelihood - depended on their survival. The Acadians (who were later known as Cajuns) learned to live off the land by incorporating fish, shellfish and wild game into their diets.
Born in the bayous and swamplands of Louisiana, Cajun cuisine is one of natural resources, efficiency and survival. The phrase "table in the wilderness" is often used when referring to original Cajun cooking because the Acadians had to adapt to the indigenous foods of the area. A common misconception is that Cajun food is always spicy. On the contrary, Cajun food is well-seasoned, but did not gain a reputation for heat until the 1970s when the "blackening" technique became popular. Cajun cuisine originated from three major influences:
Natural Resources - Native Americans taught the Acadian immigrants to utilize their resources by cooking with products found in swamps, bayous, lakes, rivers and woods.
One Pot Meals - In an effort to conserve energy and resources, meals that could be cooked in a single pot made everyone's life easier. Dishes like jambalaya, grillads, stews, fricassees and gumbos all lent themselves to this form of preparation.
German Sausages - Another outside influence, Cajuns quickly learned to use the sausage to add flavor and spice to their cooking. Sausages like andouille (pronounced en-DOO- wee), smoked sausage, boudin and chaudin are all found in Cajun cooking.
A little bit of this and a little bit of that... Aside from the unique dishes of each culture, Cajun and Creole cuisine share many of the same dishes. Both utilize (and swear by) what chefs call the "Holy Trinity" of southern cooking: green peppers, onions and celery. These basic staples will most likely be included in any authentic Cajun or Creole dishes. Also, many recipes call for a roux (pronounced roo), which is basically flour cooked in fat and browned to add a base flavor to the dish.
Here are some recipes for all your southern favorites.
Jambalaya - Traditionally made in one pot with meat and vegetables, served over rice. Most Creole recipes add tomatoes while the Cajun recipes do not. Both are included here.
Gumbo - More of a stew than jambalaya, gumbo is spicy and includes lots of regional seafood like shrimp and crawfish. Gumbo is also served over rice.
Etouffée - In French, étoufée literally means "smothered." Most étoufée dishes use a seafood - most popularly crawfish - and have a consistency much like gumbo. Shrimp Etoufee
Grits- A type of porridge consisting of ground corn, grits are a popular breakfast side in the south. Served plain or with cheese.
Remoulade - A sauce originating in France, it is most akin to a mayonnaise-based tartar sauce. The sauce is used in many cultures and regions, but in Louisiana it is mostly seen with bread, pan-fried fish or seafood.
Po' Boy (also po-boy, po boy, or poor boy) - The traditional submarine sandwich of Louisiana. It usually consists of fried meat or seafood with a creamy, tartar sauce on a bun.
Red Beans and Rice - Made with red beans, vegetables, pork and rice, this was another "one pot meal" that allowed women to do house chores while the food was cooking. Often served at big gatherings (like Mardi Gras) because it can serve so many people.
Catfish - A fish that is abundant in the south, catfish has become an integral part of Cajun and Creole cooking.
Bourbon Chicken Bourbon Chicken