Consumer Interest Rises in Cajun Cuisine

Jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo… there's something to whet everyone's appetite in Cajun country.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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There’s something to whet everyone’s appetite in exotic New Orleans. Jambalaya, crawfish étouffée and savory filé gumbos, heaping po’ boy sandwiches, a muffuletta from Central Grocery, red beans and rice, fried catfish or ‘gator, just-shucked shrimp, savory andouille sausage, sweet pralines — all Crescent City classics. Of course, they all are best focused on either crack-of-dawn or late-night visits to Café Du Monde, hunched over steaming chicory café with a plateful of beignets, those delectable square doughnuts, covered with powdered sugar that ends up dusting your face and lap.

Serious food aficionados flock to the Big Easy to sample classic Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s, where it was created in 1899 in honor of John D. Rockefeller, one of the richest men in the world at that time. Other delicacies include: Pompano en papillote - fish in a parchment bag cooked in a special wine sauce at Arnaud’s; Eggs Benedict with the perfect hollandaise sauce or Bananas Foster, two trademark creations of Brennan’s; Turtle Soup Au Sherry at Commander’s Palace; Côtes D'Agneau Grillées, served with Sauce Choron at Louis XVI Restaurant; the trademark Trout Marguery, a rolled fillet of poached trout paired with shrimp, mushrooms and hollandaise sauce or Galatoire's fresh pompano topped with sautéed crabmeat. For more modern eaters there’s a "blackened" dish at Alex Patout’s Restaurant, but it isn’t fish. Look for blackened brie in a crisp salad of fresh greens with blueberry vinaigrette.

Pork chops pop when seasoned and blackened by Chef Paul Prudhomme.

True Louisiana food lovers make the pilgrimage for blackened Louisiana drumfish at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, founded by Cajun chef and icon Paul Prudhomme. He took the culinary community by storm with his blackened redfish recipes and made Cajun/Creole cuisine the hottest dining trend of the 1980s. Customers begged him for the secret seasonings so often he eventually founded Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Seasoning Blends to accommodate them.

With the perfect name for a New Orleans chef, Susan Spicer (her brother Tom was a professional herb and spice grower), of Bayona restaurant, is still turning heads with her creative offerings, such as cashew butter, pepper jelly & duck sandwiches. Chef Greg Sonnier serves cracker-crusted rabbit wrapped in basil with shrimp at Gabrielle Restaurant, while sausages, patés and smoked salmon are all prepared in-house at Chef René Bajeux’s René Bistrot. Restaurant August's Chef John Besh serves up his signature dishes, the “BLT,” which consists of buster crabs, lettuce and tomatoes on lost bread (Cajun-style French toast) and Tongue in Cheek, combining fois gras and veal cheeks.

We speak of political dynasties, but New Orleans has a gastronomic dynasty — the Brennan family — with restaurants such as Bacco, Brennan's, Commander's Palace, Mr. B's Bistro and Palace Café. These were training grounds for many of the most illustrious chefs, including celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse. Lagasse is responsible for enthusing millions of Americans to rediscover and appreciate Louisiana cuisine.

Of Portuguese and French Canadian heritage, Lagasse grew up in Fall River, Mass., moved to New Orleans to work at the legendary Commander’s Palace, fell in love with the city, and never left. Describing his cooking as “New” New Orleans cuisine, or “real New Orleans cooking with a flair,” Lagasse went on to open Emeril’s, Nola and Emeril’s Delmonico, drawing large crowds looking for daring and creative Creole/New American cooking.

Creoles Set the Table

Fusion – both cultural and in its cooking styles – was inevitable as Louisiana sits in the Southeastern U.S. on the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River, easily accessible by ship from anywhere in the world.

Originally home to native Americans, a flurry of immigrants arrived in Louisiana in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. “Creole” originally referred to descendents of the French from France, French Canada, or the French colonies of the Caribbean. These brought classical French cooking techniques.

French-speaking Acadians arrived from modern-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in the 1750s. Driven out of Canada when the British took control of the Canadian territories from the French, 18,000 to 20,000 families migrated to the 22-parish area of Louisiana known as Acadiana. They managed to survive with the help of the Choctaw Indians, who taught them how to forage for food in a new climate, and African Americans, who taught them to cook with indigenous ingredients.

Slavery was introduced during the earliest days of the colony. “They brought their culinary traditions and used locally grown ingredients such as Native American corn and file (ground sassafras leaves) with okra, kidney beans and black-eyed peas from Africa, and cayenne chilies from the Caribbean to create their famous gumbos,” according to Louisiana authority and writer, Gene Bourg. “Jambalaya, another hallmark regional dish, may have West African roots; it may also have been inspired by Spain’s paella, which likely arrived during Spanish rule in Louisiana [1762 to 1803].”

Spaniards from Spain, the Canary Islands, and the Spanish colonies of the New World contributed indigenous spices and rice-based meals. African immigrants (voluntary and involuntary) added their ingredients and techniques to form the heart of Creole. Later, Germans added sausage-making expertise and Italians their pasta, eggplant and artichoke dishes.

Many households consisted of up to a dozen people, so rice became the easiest, cheapest and tastiest way to stretch what little meat, game or other protein they had and provided the fuel that early Cajun settlers needed for survival. Foraging Cajuns became known for eating all manner of exotica — a reputation that still lingers. An old joke claims that in a Cajun zoo, cage labels list the animals by popular name, scientific name, habitat and a recipe.
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