People flock to the Big Easy in droves for Mardi Gras and Jazzfest every year. As popular as New Orleans is though, the entire state of Louisiana is known as a place where the food is as rich as the history. A place where you can taste the local and international influences in every delicious bite.
Visitors to Louisiana are always in for a treat, for there are two main types of cuisine that Louisiana is famous for – Creole and Cajun. Often, visitors use these terms frivolously, for without any proper understanding, these cuisines might seem the same. Plus, they both begin with the letter ‘c.’
Cajun cuisine is the result of the French-Acadian exiles who fled Acadia (which is now known as Canada) in the 18th century. The word ‘Cajun’ itself is a derivative of ‘Acadian.’ These were the original French Settlers in North America, arriving first in the early 1600’s. They settled into the swamplands of Louisiana when they refused to pledge their allegiance to the British Crown in 1755. During the time of their settlement though, Cajun cuisine was seen as the food of the peasants.
They lived off what they could find, taking their French countryside cookery techniques of throwing what they could find into a pot and cooking it. Tinged with influence from the people from other cultures they’d meet along the way (Native Americans, Black Creoles, Germans, Italians, and Spaniards), this is how the famed dish of gumbo came into existence.
Even today, Cajun cooking relies on the waterways of Louisiana which provide a bounty of tasty seafood options. Seafood has always been a major part of the cuisine, something that will likely stand true for centuries to come. Along with seafood, vegetables, and meats, Cajun dishes almost always have what is referred to as the “Holy Trinity” included. That’s bell peppers, celery, and onions.
In fact, there is one key distinction between Cajun and Creole cuisines. Since they do have some similarities, it can be hard to differentiate, but Cajun cuisine seldom uses tomatoes.
Cajun culture is also very steeped in tradition. One of the biggest ones that has made it around the country is the Crawfish Boil. Large vats of boiled crawfish are served up to everyone that joins in. It’s a messy affair, but one that brings people together in a most delicious way.
The Creole people were also French, which is why many people getting the whole Cajun-Creole thing confused. But the Creoles were of the French colonial Louisiana who were all upper class. Creoles also mixed with other people they encountered which brought unique influences to the cuisine, though due to their wealth, they had ice boxes and other preservation methods, a key reason why butter is often a staple ingredient in Creole cuisine, but not in Cajun, even to this day.
The delicious melding of European, Caribbean, and African cooking techniques yielded the exotic dishes of Creole cuisine. In Creole cuisine, you’ll find jambalaya but it has tomatoes while the Cajun version does not. The roux for Creole jambalaya is also made with butter and flour and the Cajun version simply employs oil and flour.
Louisiana Cuisine’s Common Thread
Cajun or Creole, there’s one thing that definitely unites everyone of Louisiana together and makes both styles of cuisine shine – seafood. According to the Louisiana Tourism Board, the state has thousands of miles of water from the coastline to the bays and inlets, making things like catfish, crawfish, freshwater lobsters, alligator, and even turtle incredibly popular ingredients for both.
Another thing to note is that both Cajun and Creole cuisine are out of this world. It’s less about being spicy and more about a boldness that creates a warmth inside. It’s comforting yet exotic all at once. All around Louisiana, you’ll find plenty of places to grab a good meal. But many times, Cajun and Creole cuisine step over boundaries and it becomes a bit murky as to which one you’re having.
Gumbo, as mentioned early on, is a Cajun dish but you’ll also see Creole versions of it. If you’re not sure what you’re having, you can discern the difference if there are tomatoes or butter in it. Generally-speaking though, gumbo is a Cajun dish that often Creole will make with their own influences. Jambalaya is a nod to the Spanish paella while Étoufée is all Creole with a butter-based sauce smothered atop vegetables. Around America these days, the Cajun and Creole influence is so revered that people will do anything to get to New Orleans during Mardi Gras. For those that can’t, recreating these flavors at home is the next best thing, though there are Cajun and Creole restaurants in most of the major cities, making it easy to get a taste of authentic Louisiana fare.