I was thinking of American cooking lately when someone I know moved from Texas to Louisiana waxing lyrical about the wonderful food of New Orleans and the Mississippi delta. It is the quintessential culinary melting pot with history, race, culture, politics and cooking all blending to give an intoxicating recipe that really does make a song and dance.
It is not a cuisine I would think too much about coming from the snobby world of fine dining but I have eaten it often enough around the world with places like London. Paris and Rio serving decent fayre and stateside too it was delicious the couple of times I tried it. It’s the ultimate comfort food, informal, tasty and will not break the bank.
The Cajun and Creole cooking styles of this deep south are interchangeable with the former being derived from the influx of the French Canadians mid 18th century and the latter coming with all the new settlers from the Caribbean, Africa and Europe at the same time who also developed their own Creole language. Creole food being also defined as conjoined cooking from different sets of culinary traditions and this coming together has resulted in similar Creole styles also extending from Brazil to Africa and onto Asia.
It differentiates then from standard diaspora food where the cuisine retains its identity not merging too much upon moving home but it does form its own dynamic and traditions. The Cajun name is from the former colony in Canada called Acadia so the influence is predominantly French. Native American touches also permeate both cultures of course.
In Louisiana the immigrants had to make do then with creating a cuisine around readily available foods from the hot swamps and marshes with meats like alligator and turtle as well as abundant other seafood especially crawfish and all mixed with the likes of local rice, peas, corn, peppers and then okra which came there from Africa. The cuisine was not too spicy traditionally and the hot chilli or piquant sauce is always left on the side for you to decide how far up the Scoville scale you want to climb with your heat levels. It seems to be more spiced up in its international renditions.
Recipe wise the two big ones are the Jambalaya originating from the Spanish Paella minus the saffron however but it’s no surprise this dish came with them considering the Hispanic influence. The name is a mash up from the Spanish words for ham and paella itself. The other one is Gumbo, a pretty much an anything goes type of soupy meat or seafood stew with the name coming from Africa and actually meaning okra. The French immigrants brought plenty of nods to their motherlands too with great soups, pork dishes, sausages and baking including their breads, biscuits and cakes.
Cajun chicken is another staple that will have you knocking up your standard spice mix of cayenne, paprika, garlic and herbs, giving the chicken a good rubbed in coating. You can buy a decent readymade mix these days which might have ginger and coriander too. I suggest scoring it and marinating overnight before baking off or sticking on a barbeque in summer and then serving with their pilaf or paella style braised rice. This dish morphs into several interpretations, mild or spicy, skin on or off, chicken on or off the bone, blackened or not, extra sauce or not, the choice is yours entirely of course as varied as the region itself.
So from afar it can be quite a complex cuisine to grasp as it is vague and you do not see many restaurants doing it or at all because it is not so easy to define and probably one of those styles best eaten at home where it lives in the good old U, S of A itself.