Let’s face it: The only place to get authentic Creole and Cajun food is in Louisiana. While this may be one of the more accepted rules of American gastronomy, most people celebrating Mardi Gras who can’t make it down to New Orleans this time of year still want to experience the classic dishes of the holiday — the gumbo, the jambalaya and, of course, the red beans and rice.
So before drinking one too many Bloody Marys at brunch, remind yourself that there are at least 10 dishes, listed below, that can satisfy your New Orleans craving this “Fat Tuesday.” But first, a note on the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisine, because who said you can’t party and learn something at the same time?
Creole and Cajun are often lumped together as one cuisine, especially in the North, but the two types of food have roots in different cultures. A very basic difference between them is that Creole cooking is considered urban food and uses tomatoes, while Cajun food is more “backwoods” and doesn’t use tomatoes, according to Jay Ducote, a Louisiana-based food writer and chef. The history of the food goes much deeper, however.
Those referred to as “Cajun” were French colonists who originally came to lower rural Louisiana after being exiled from the Acadia area of Canada — which today includes Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — when the British took over in the early 1700s. Ever resourceful and lacking in luxuries, they heavily used game in their dishes, and they used every part of the animal.
“Creole” people are typically considered those born to French colonials who settled in New Orleans, but the label sometimes includes those of Spanish, African-American and Native-American decent as well, Ducote wrote. Creole dishes have a wider range of continental ingredients, being a metropolitan cuisine. Now that we've got that out of the way, here’s the food:
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1) Creole Gumbo: This recipe is from Howard Mitcham, one of the preeminent Cajun and Creole cookbook writers of his day. It incorporates shrimp (head on, of course), crabs, chicken and a whole host of other ingredients.
2) Cajun Jambalaya: This chicken-and-sausage dish is from one of New Orleans’ most prominent Cajun chefs, Donald Link, owner of three restaurants in the city. While it's Cajun, it technically used tomato paste, but hey, it's OK to play loose and fast with the rules, it’s Mardi Gras.
4) Crawfish Étouffée: Étouffée sounds very fancy, but it’s essentially shellfish over rice. Crawfish are the recommended option — and to some, maybe the only option — but shrimp will work too.
5) Muffuletta: The muffuletta sandwich isn’t really Creole or Cajun technically; it’s just New Orleans. Essentially an Italian sandwich served with an olive salad similar to the French Tapenade, this one you should start making the night before to make sure the olive salad has plenty of time to chill overnight.
6) Shrimp and Grits: Pretty much what it sounds like, although the technique is what counts. Make the grits yourself and used head-on shrimp if you’re not too afraid. This recipe from Sean Brock, considered one of the South’s most important modern chefs, will surely please any guests you might have.
7) Fried Okra: This dish is a bit simpler than the other dishes described above. It has fewer ingredients and your guests won’t be able to get enough of them. And of course for optimal enjoyment, it's best to deep-fat fry them (you know you want to).
8) Oyster Po’ Boy: Thought to be originally given to striking streetcar workers in the 1920s, the French bread sandwich got its name from the workers screaming “Here comes another poor boy,” when the sandwiches would come out of the kitchen, according to FrenchQuarter.com. This recipe from Saveur uses oysters, but shrimp and roast beef are also common. To avoid the sandwich sliding too much, take off the tomatoes.
9) Beignet: Of French origin, these deep-fried pastries are served hot for breakfast with powdered sugar on top in New Orleans. This recipe from Southern Living gives you step-by-step instructions. Remember to serve with a café au lait.