The roots of Louisiana cuisine come from two major cultural traditions: Creole and Cajun. Especially for outsiders, it is hard to distinguish between the two, and indeed they have mingled and influenced one another a great deal over the years. Nonetheless, students enrolled in culinary arts programs should come to understand how cooking can express a historical background and shared culture. One of the best ways to gain that perspective is mastering at least a few of the most iconic dishes from Cajun and Creole cuisine.
Cajun versus Creole
The distinction between Creole and Cajun food has its basis in a long and often tumultuous history. An often cited point of difference is that Creole comes from the urban culture of New Orleans, while Cajun food is associated with the swamps and bayous. Louisiana food blogger Jay Ducotte noted, though, that splitting up the two culinary traditions by country and city is an oversimplification.
The divisions run deeper, stretching back to the period of French colonialism that began in the 17th century. The term “Creole” was used by the French to denote people born in the Louisiana colony. Over time this classification came to include those of French, Spanish or African ancestry. Creole dishes are thus heavily influenced by the diverse cultures that populate New Orleans.
Cajuns descended from the French settlers of the Canadian region of Acadia. The British conquered that area in 1710 from the French and eventually expelled the prior residents between 1755-1764. The Acadians relocated to rural southern Louisiana and mixed with other ethnic groups, such as Irish, Spanish and German people.
All these cultural influences come to bear in Louisiana cooking. Ultimately, the clearest way to tell the difference between Cajun and Creole food is to look at the ingredients. The New Orleans Official Guide stated that both are heavy on the “holy trinity” of green peppers, onions and celery. However, Creole food includes tomatoes and more oysters, crab and shrimp. On the other hand, Cajun food is usually more heavily seasoned, featuring large quantities of cayenne pepper or hot sauce, and more pork and crawfish.
Jambalaya, a signature dish of Louisiana, is one of a few that have distinct Creole and Cajun varieties. Creole jambalaya commonly includes the obligatory trinity, along with chicken and sausage, vegetables, tomatoes and finally seafood. Cajun jambalaya does not have tomatoes.
Gumbo is made with the vegetable trinity and meat, usually chicken and sausage, though some versions use duck and seafood. However, Cajun recipes have long called for creating a dark roux from oil and flour and using either okra or file powder as thickening agent. As with jambalaya, Creole recipes include tomato. The roux is often made with butter and the dish is less intensely seasoned.
Though andouille sausage is extremely common in gumbo today, Lolis Eric Elie explained in Smithsonian Magazine that it was once unknown in regional cooking. Boudin blanc is a more traditional Cajun sausage made from pork, liver, rice, garlic, onions and spices stuffed in a natural pork casing and commonly served with rice dressing. Some Louisiana restaurants offer Boudin balls, made by battering and deep-frying the sausage.
Other regional dishes abound with their own long lists of variations, such as etouffe, crawfish served over rice. As in the family recipe Brandy Gonsoulin shared in the Chicago Tribune, the shellfish is cooked through the smothering method, browned in covered pan with a little water. Even as Cajun and Creole cooking has become more common in far-flung locations and the lines between the two have blurred, such family recipes still provide a link back to the complex history that spawned Louisiana cooking.