For many Americans, New Orleans has become the preferred destination for partying and having a good time. Famous for its raucous Mardi Gras celebrations and French Quarter full of history and culture, New Orleans is indeed regarded as one of the country’s hottest tourist destinations. But aside from all this, there is another reason people flock to New Orleans, even outside of Fat Tuesday: the food.
New Orleans has become the de facto capital for two major movements in cuisine, namely, Cajun and Creole cooking. While there is some overlap between the two, there are a few differences as well. If you’ve ever been curious about what those differences are, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s an introduction to Cajun and Creole cooking, and the minute differences between these two important culinary traditions.
What Is Cajun Cuisine?
The word “Cajun” is a colloquialism of the word “Acadian”, which refers to slaves that were taken from the Acadia region in the northeastern US, and transported to work the fields of Louisiana. These slaves were almost universally Black, but they had interacted some with their French and Spanish masters, as well as with the Native Americans who lived in the Louisiana swamps. As a result, Cajun cuisine is a mélange of African, Spanish, French, and Native American cultural influences, taking cooking techniques and ingredients from each and creating a culinary experience all its own.
Cajun cuisine is considered a more rustic type of cuisine and, in terms of its ingredients, draws heavily from the region it inhabits. Many common ingredients in Cajun cuisine are caught or hunted, rather than raised domestically. This resulted in the development of such favorites as crawfish jambalaya and alligator gumbo, which bears some resemblance to a pork menudo recipe.
In terms of flavor profile, what sets Cajun dishes apart from all other popular cuisines is the presence of what’s come to be known in culinary circles as the “Holy Trinity”: green peppers, onions, and celery. These aromatic vegetables are usually roughly chopped and tossed into a pot to serve as a sauce or stew starter, and are a localized version of the classical French mirepoix of carrots, celery, and white onion. However, Cajun cooks also learned to incorporate ingredients such as corn and sassafras leaves into their dishes, which they learned to do from the Choctaw Native Americans who inhabited Louisiana at the time.
Another similarity of Cajun cooking has to French cuisine is how it thickens its sauces. Like the French, Cajun cooks use roux, a mixture of flour and rendered fat. However, while the French use butter for their roux, Cajun cooks use lard. They also allow their roux to cook down and turn golden brown, unlike the French who use a blonde or raw roux.
What Is Creole Cuisine?
Creole cuisine is the cuisine that arose among the landed elites in New Orleans, and could be called the more refined version Cajun cuisine. It existed before any Acadians appeared in Louisiana, so it predates any kind of cooking that might be referred to as Cajun. It had a direct influence on the creation of Cajun cuisine and features many of the same dishes, with some slight differences: namely, the use of spices, and the presence of a dessert course.
At one time, spices were some of the most valuable substances on the planet and were reserved for the wealthy and powerful people who could afford them. As Creole cuisine was mainly served to the feudal lords who settled in Louisiana, spices such as cayenne pepper, bay leaf, and black peppercorns all feature prominently in Creole cuisine. This means that Creole dishes are likely to be hotter, spicier, and more complex in flavor than their Cajun counterparts. For example, both Cajun and Creole gumbos may have okra, crawfish, and andouille sausage in them, but the Creole version will have cayenne pepper, paprika, and black pepper added to the trinity starter.
In line with this, sugar was also considered a spice at one time in history, and like spices, sugar was very expensive. Therefore, the concept of finishing a meal with a sweet dish was a luxury available only to the wealthy. Creole cuisine features a number of delightful desserts that Cajun cooks would never have been able to make, simply because Cajun diners did not have access to sugar in the same way that Creole diners did. Today, Creole cuisine has contributed such dessert classics as bananas Foster, or bananas flambeed in brandy, sugar, and cinnamon. They have also given us beignets, the delightfully light bits of fried puffed dough, dusted liberally with powdered sugar.
No matter which you prefer, there can be little argument that both Cajun and Creole dishes are some of the most loved in the world. Hundreds of thousands of visitors to New Orleans can attest to this, so try some of these out and see which one is your new favorite!