Louisiana has many layers of history and culture wrapped within itself. Ranging from the original Native American tribes to Spanish, French, and German, English, African and also Italian immigrants all influencing the mix of what we know as Cajun and Creole cooking. This cuisine has such varying extremes from country cooking one pot meals to elaborate dishes of exquisite ingredients and sauces. One and the same? Absolutely not as Cajun and Creole cuisines have very distinct histories, differences and flavors.
What is CAJUN COOKING? To experience Cajun cooking is to know the “Love of Life”, or joi de vive that it offers.
French Canadians were forcibly exiled by the British from their homes in Canada. These Acadian’s made their way to the southern region of Louisiana and are the foundation of the Cajun life and culture. Most were originally farmers, trappers, and fishermen. They were able to survive by relying on the resources of the land like fish, shellfish and wild games. Having been taught how to forage in the swamps and bayous by the Native Americans, they learned how to utilize ingredients found which included corn, bay leaves, sassafras leaves (when ground this made file powder), as well as wildlife like alligator, crawfish, and even turtle. Depending heavily on their black cast iron pots, many one pot meals such as jambalaya, étouffées, gumbos and soups were the staple of their spicy diets. Cajuns didn’t believe in wasting anything and, made use of all butchered meats stocks and vegetables. Adding rice to their meals they were able to “stretch” to feed their large families. The “Holy Trinity”, which is bell peppers, onions and celery is a popular vegetable addition to most meals. Seafood is also a favorite and easily accessible from the Gulf of Mexico. Acadian fishermen had a wealth of crawfish, catfish, shrimps, crabs and oysters to exploit in their cuisine. Another staple is the use of cayenne pepper, garlic and roux’s. This base of flour mixed with a fat or water is used to thicken or flavor soups stews and gravies. A dark roux is used in the making of gumbo. Tomatoes from South America and okra from African influences also play an important role.
Cajun is back woods country hospitality that despite their less fortune still allows for lagniappe, or a little something extra and not expected.
What is Creole?
Creoles were said to be of the upper class category. Those who were considered to be Creole were able to trace their family history to the Spanish or French aristocratic heritage and were of a refined cultural background. French and European immigrants moved to the French colony of Louisiana and brought with them their wealth, education and an appreciation for finer dining and elegance. Naturally this included classically trained chefs of French cuisine.
Creole dishes are savory and mildly flavored but have many steps of preparation. Creole is also a mixture of other ethnic groups such as Haitian, Caribbean, Italians, Irish and Germans. An example would be the muffuletta sandwich. This is a Sicilian dish by origin. Signor Lupo Salvador opened the small Italian market in the French Quarter in 1906, called the Central Grocery. The sandwich is named after the baker of the round Italian bread which is used. Bouillabaisse, beignets and café au lait are French introductions to Creole cooking. Bread pudding combines the use of French bread introducing eggs and dairy from the Germans. African street vendors would shout “calas belles, calas tout chauds” as they would hock their fresh hot fried cakes, through the French Quarter. Slaves of the West Indies introduced Mirliton, a light green, pear shaped vegetable, when they came to Louisiana. Mirliton is also known as chayote and is like a squash. Many other ingredients and slow cooking methods were introduced by the slave cooks who prepared the meals.
Over time the differences between Cajun and Creole cooking may have become intertwined or seemingly blurred, but there is no doubt that it was heavily influenced by a vast variety of immigrants and their cultures. To truly experience the Louisiana experience you must be open to amazing flavors, many spices and seasonings and even unfamiliar ingredients. But enjoy it with the “Joi de Vive” of the Louisiana spirit and chances are you won’t be disappointed.
Cajun and Creole are truly a gift to America from a history of Immigrants blending food, family and traditions.