To visit New Orleans and not kick back with an Abita while reveling in the sounds of a hypnotic saxophone would be a pity. Not spending the days filling up on hefty po’ boy and muffuletta sandwiches, and the evenings devoted to effervescent French 75s and brooding Sazeracs would be just as blasphemous. The Crescent City teems with culinary glories, but one of its most intriguing assets is a power to illuminate the inviting rusticity of Cajun cuisine.
Although they are both steeped in French tradition, Cajun cooking is not to be confused for Creole. The latter, spawned from the Spanish word criollo, is a reflection of the region's multicultural heritage, a celebration of immigrants at turns from France, Spain, West Africa and the Caribbean alike. This motley legacy elicited a barrage of dishes like red beans and rice and shrimp rémoulade that will forever be entwined with New Orleans. Cajun food, on the other hand, is directly connected to the Acadians, who after being expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in the mid-18th century, found sanctuary in southwest Louisiana. Here, meals largely revolved around throwing ingredients into a single pot, and today it’s still best relished in skilled home kitchens.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that revolutionary chef Paul Prudhomme evangelized Cajun recipes through his work at Commander’s Palace and later his own French Quarter classic, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. Modern interpretations of such dishes, from New Orleans heavyweights including Emeril Lagasse, John Besh and Donald Link, followed, adding contemporary restaurants to a dining landscape dominated by grandes dames like Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s.
In the first episode of our spankin' new American food documentary series Foodways, host Jessica Sanchez explores this fascinating cuisine with guidance from chef Isaac Toups (of Toups' Meatery). Check out the full video below, and also explore eight must-know Cajun dishes in the slideshow.
A spin-off of the French butter version, a laborious Cajun-style roux unites flour and bacon fat or oil to bolster sauces. It is perhaps best known for fortifying gumbo, the stew with origins likely going back to 18th-century slaves. There are infinite ways to prepare a savory pot. Some are thickened with okra or filé (dried sassafras leaves) instead of a dark, nutty roux; others combine all three. Shrimp and oysters often make their way into the liquid, although chicken and andouille sausage is another sought-after combination.
Where to get it: Of all the myriad gumbo preparations in New Orleans, one consistent favorite is the Lent-time, greens-laden Gumbo Z’Herbes at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. Leah Chase’s acclaimed recipe calls for a slew of vegetables — from watercress to cabbage — along with brisket and smoked sausage. Or check out chef David Kinch's version at The Bywater, a newcomer in Los Gatos, CA (pictured).
Resourceful, refrigerator-deprived Cajuns of yore often held ceremonial hog slaughters known as boucheries to make use of the entire animal. This resulted in boudin sausage. Boudin rouge, made with fresh pig’s blood, is naturally hard to come by. But boudin blanc, the soft white sausage that melds pork with rice, green onions and parsley, is ubiquitous. When not served in alluring link form, boudin is often reimagined as crispy, bread crumb–fried balls.
Where to get them: At Cochon Butcher, Donald Link’s more casual sibling to Cochon, the sausages, practically liberated from their casings, are accompanied by tangy pickles and whole-grain mustard.
The presence of tomatoes in one-pot jambalaya reveals it’s a Creole recipe. A Cajun one, undoubtedly a creatively frugal way to maximize leftovers, starts with a base of browned meat — maybe alligator, maybe shrimp. Then the “holy trinity” of green peppers, onion and celery, the regional twist on French mirepoix, is added, followed by the stock and spices. After a long simmering session, rice is brought into the fold as the final, essential touch.
Where to get it: Late-night French Quarter dive Coop’s Place is the spot for video poker machines and, it turns out, one of the city’s best bowls of jambalaya. Although this one is distinctly Creole, the rabbit and smoked sausage concoction gets a jolt of Cajun joie de vivre through smidgens of seasoned tasso ham.
Good ol’ white rice gets “dirtied” by browned pieces of chicken liver and gizzard, also known as the oft-unwanted giblets.
Where to get it: At Toups' Meatery, Isaac Toups strays from the original, embracing brisket and spices like paprika and cayenne in his dirty rice recipe (pictured), which can be ordered as a side or as an accompaniment to the double-cut pork chop with cane syrup gastrique.
Come spring, when crawfish abound in Louisiana, one must partake in a communal boil, a jovial social affair as much as a feast. Inside a massive, scalding pot, the seafood — as well as potatoes, half-ears of corn, andouille sausage and garlic — boils before guests’ eyes. Plates are then piled high with the goods and the tender meat is ungracefully sucked from the heads of the crawfish.
Where to get it: Deanie’s Seafood in Bucktown is where to buy fresh crawfish by the sack (and maybe just-shucked oysters and crab bisque, to boot). The propane-shy can also snag their crawdads pre-boiled.
In French, étouffée means to smother. For the crawfish étouffée, a staple in both Cajun and Creole cookery, this sentiment translates to a rich dish pairing crawfish tails with a light, blond roux served over rice.
Where to get it: Bon Ton Café, an institution dating back to the 1950s, is known for its Cajun specialties. Among them is the crawfish étouffée, served all year long over a mound of parsley butter rice.
Blackening fish with a zesty spice mixture doesn’t have a long history. Paul Prudhomme got people wild over his blackened redfish, in which butter-dipped fillets are generously dusted with a blend of spices including paprika and cayenne, and then cooked over high heat in a skillet until lusciously charred. Numerous chefs have put their own stamp on the technique since.
Where to get it: Though more Creole than Cajun, the blackened tuna with smoked corn sauce at Brigtsen’s, heightened by red bean salsa and roasted red pepper sour cream, is a deserved legend.
Desserts often get glossed over in sausage- and shellfish-dominant Cajun country, but the powdered sugar–covered beignet must not be overlooked. These warm pockets of fried dough are best savored as a wee-hours fuel stop or to quell a morning hangover.
Where to get them: One would be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying beignet than the fresh-from-the-fryer ones churned out at Café du Monde. Even in the sweltering heat, these donut-like confections must be washed down with a chicory café au lait.