Secrets of Creole and Cajun Food

Is the food in New Orleans Creole, or Cajun? Mary Goodbody offers up six things you probably didn’t know about the two cuisines.

Steven Mark Needham / Getty Images

Outsiders may know the food as being Creole…or is it Cajun? Does it matter? Aren’t they the same thing? It can be very confusing. While the two styles of cooking share a lot of ingredients and flavors, they are distinct from each other. Both are absolutely heavenly, full of flavors that dance on the tongue and waltz their way down the throat. They both rely on thick, flour-based roux, bell peppers, garlic, celery, onions, and chiles. Both can be hot and fiery, yet not all the food is spicy. Both include oysters, crawfish, crab, shrimp, and fish from the Gulf of Mexico, and pork, fowl, and beef. The Cajuns favor a spicy sausage called andouille, while the Creoles make chaurice.

Today, most New Orleans chefs cook “Louisiana food,” a term favored by Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme, who more than 20 years ago recognized that the two cuisines, while distinct, shared enough commonalities that they could happily come together. And yet it’s not just purists who know that the two styles have their own characteristics. Here are six ways the cuisines are alike and different.

“Creole food is greatly influenced by French settlers but also has significant traces of Spanish, Portuguese, German, English, African, and Native American cooking.”

1. How it all began. Originating in New Orleans, Creole cuisine is the result of influences from the many nationalities who settled in the city. Creole food is greatly influenced by French settlers but also has significant traces of Spanish, Portuguese, German, English, African, and Native American cooking. Many think Creole food is a direct outgrowth of French cuisine, but it’s an amalgam of so many culinary styles that it is far less “French” than Cajun cooking. It is truly the cuisine of the city of New Orleans. It tends to be a little more sophisticated and refined than Cajun food. Some people label Creole food as “city food” and Cajun as “country food.”

Cajun food developed separately from Creole and has a longer history. In the middle of the 18th century, the English exiled the French who originally settled in Nova Scotia (which at the time was called Acadia). Many of these uprooted people made their way to the bayou country of Louisiana, where they were free to speak French and practice Catholicism. Once there, they continued to fish and farm as they always had but had to learn about a very different climate and a host of unfamiliar natural resources available to them. Relying on fish, seafood, game, the vegetables they could grow, and domesticated animals they could raise, they created a distinctive cuisine with roots in the cooking of southern France. Because most Cajuns—which is a bowdlerized pronunciation of Acadian—were poor, the food tends to be hearty and cooked in one pot, which is an easier, more efficient way to feed many mouths and hard-laboring folks.

2. Only in Louisiana. The most authentic Creole cooking is found in private homes. Today most restaurants in New Orleans serve a tasty marriage of Cajun and Creole cooking so that there is less distinction between the two than there used to be. Some restaurant food is strictly Creole: shrimp Creole, which is shrimp cooked in a sauce of tomatoes, peppers, celery, onion, and garlic; pain perdu, which is New Orleans-style French toast; and bananas Foster, a popular dessert invented at Brennan’s restaurant years ago, to name a few. Peacemakers are Creole creations, supposedly developed for errant husbands to take home to their wives after a night of debauchery—because, the reasoning goes, what wife could resist a sandwich chock full of fried oysters, slathered with tangy tartar sauce, and wedged inside the French Quarter’s best, freshly baked bread?

3. The role of rice. Louisiana residents eat more rice than most Americans, a fact that’s easily explained when you take into account that both Creole and Cajun dishes are cooled and tempered by the addition of white rice, either as a bed beneath the food (most often true of Creole) or an ingredient stirred into the dish (most often true of Cajun). Dirty rice, a Cajun dish made by mixing chicken gizzards and livers into rice, is rich and filling; calas, which are deep-fried rice balls, are very much Creole breakfast food and used to be sold early in the morning on the streets of the city.

4. Gumbo 101. Gumbo is a Cajun soup (some say stew) that begins with a dark roux and then may contain chicken, seafood, and any variety of vegetables. It is typically thickened with okra, or with a fine powder ground from sassafras leaves called file powder, which is also a common thickener. Both give gumbo the slightly gelatinous quality much prized by everyone who likes it. Most historians believe gumbo evolved from a dish early Acadians made when they tried to recreate bouillabaisse.

5. Jambalaya vs. etouffée. Both jambalaya and etouffée are familiar Cajun dishes. Jambalaya is rice based, highly seasoned, and flavored with a delicious mixture of beef, chicken, smoked sausages, pork, ham (often tasso, a Cajun smoked ham), or seafood. Plus, it nearly always includes tomatoes. According to Prudhomme and the Acadian Dictionary, the name comes from jambon, French for ham; ya, African for rice; and a la, which is a phrase the Cajuns affix to many things. Etouffée is a dish that is “smothered,” or covered with liquid, and contains seafood, crawfish, poultry, or meat.

6. If it ain’t crawfish, it ain’t Cajun. Crawfish are integral to Cajun food. Most folks call them crayfish, but in the bayou, they are crawfish. More crawfish are raised and eaten in Louisiana than elsewhere, and are sold live, as tails only, or blanched and peeled (“picked” is how they describe peeled). Crawfish etouffée is made with dark Cajun roux, which thickens the liquid that “smothers” the crawfish.

Click here for Cajun and Creole recipes from Cookstr.com.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

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Mary Goodbody is a cookbook writer and editor who has worked on more than 65 books. Her latest books include Antojitos! , Barcelona , Osteria , Lobel's Meat Bible , and Morton's the Cookbook . She is senior editor for Cookstr.com.