America has always been a melting pot of various cultures. Nowhere is this more evident than in our food. Many regions are known for specialties made popular by original settlers and those who came later and added their own cultural influences. In some areas, the local cuisine came into being more as a matter of economics than anything else. Cajun food is one such example.
While Cajun food has become increasingly popular in recent years, few understand its origins, and most are surprised to learn that what many market as Cajun food is generally an elevated version of the original or more closely resembles Creole cuisine than Cajun.
Before getting into the simple specifics of Cajun food, it would be wise to understand the difference between Cajun and Creole. Though they both originated in south Louisiana and the terms are often used interchangeably, they were originally born of very different cultures. Through the years, there has definitely been some crossover, but they’re still not one and the same.
Creole food was born in New Orleans. Early French and Spanish settlers established New Orleans as an upper-class port city. The aristocratic settlers brought their high-end meals from Europe with them to New Orleans. Once there, these European dishes were quite often prepared by cooks of African or Caribbean descent, who added their own spices and otherwise brought their cultures into these dishes. Creole food is typically fancier fare, with long lists of herbs, spices, and varied ingredients. Society’s upper crust were the only ones who could afford to prepare such elaborate meals, often characterized by complex sauces and soups. Since New Orleans was a port city, its residents had access to a near-endless array of ingredients. It has since made its way to surrounding areas where adaptations have been made based on local preferences, but Creole cuisine remains a hallmark of the amazing food New Orleans has to offer.
Cajun food might be described as almost a polar opposite of its Creole cuisine. The term “Cajun” is a derivation of “Acadian,” which described the colonists who settled in south-central and southwest Louisiana after a forced migration from an area of eastern Canada formerly known as Acadia. Unlike the aristocrats in New Orleans, the Cajuns were simple farmers and hunters. Their food was about survival, and their meals were based on what they grew, caught, or killed. One of the mainstays of the Cajun diet was, and still is, rice. Rice was plentiful because the area was ideal for growing it. Its abundance made it a very inexpensive way to stretch other ingredients enough to keep large families fed. The “Holy Trinity” of celery, onions, and bell peppers was so named because few savory Cajun or Creole dishes were prepared without it. Garlic and cayenne pepper are also predominant in Cajun cooking. Most Cajun meals are simple fare and quite often include braised or stewed meat served with rice and the gravy created by cooking the meat. Though simple, Cajun food is known for being very spicy, which is the primary attribute of cuisine advertised as “Cajun” in an increasing number of restaurants.
Two dishes that are common to both cuisines are among the most popular and most responsible for a lot of confusion and misinformation. Gumbo and jambalaya can be found in both cuisines, but with notable differences. Gumbo is a roux-based, reasonably thin stew served over rice. Gumbos start with the trinity and a flour and oil based roux (thickener). Traditional gumbos contain chicken and/or sausage. Shrimp and crawfish are also commonly found in both cuisines due to their plentifulness in south Louisiana. In Creole cuisine–but never Cajun–tomatoes are also added. Jambalaya consists of meat (usually chicken and/or sausage) or seafood (usually shrimp or crawfish) cooked with the trinity and, along with some of the meat or seafood stock, mixed with rice. Here, again, Creole–but never Cajun–versions add tomatoes.
All in all, these cuisine cousins have extensive histories that reflect south Louisiana’s earliest settlers. Over the years, they have crossed over and intermingled some, much like the rest of our great melting pot, but each retains signature characteristics of the diverse cultures they represent.