French, African and Spanish: the Cajun flavour combination

Spicy seafood jambalaya is probably based on Spanish paella or Provençal rice.
Spicy seafood jambalaya is probably based on Spanish paella or Provençal rice. / SUR
  • Cajun and Creole cuisine has been influenced by poor Cajun-French immigrants, African slaves and the Spanish

The New York chef Dan Barber, said that the reason that the country's culinary culture was so poor was precisely the quality of its raw materials: "A good steak does not make it necessary to develop creativity." Without generalising too much, if there is one place in the USA with an interesting culinary culture, it is the state of Louisiana, in the southeast of the country, the territory of Creole and Cajun cuisine.

Two key factors created this unique cuisine. One is miscegenation and the other is the poverty of the two main influences on Cajun cuisine; the Cajun immigrants of French origin and the African slaves.

Native ingredients such as corn, squash, potato, tomato and chili together with chicken, pork, garlic, onion, sugar cane, rice and spices which were introduced by the Spanish are combined with vegetables and fruit such as kale, okra, yam and watermelon brought by African slaves.

Creole cuisine or the 'soul food' with which the slaves could remember their homeland, was born from the fusion of all these ingredients.

It was, however, the French that left the biggest mark on the personality of Cajun cooking. The Cajuns or Acadians were French colonists who had been forced out of Canada by the British.

They brought with them the 'mirepoix', a sauce made with chopped onion, celery and green peppers, and which is essential in any stew. They also brought the 'roux', flour cooked with melted butter and used to thicken stock.

The smoked 'andouille' sausage was a French introduction and is used a lot in Cajun dishes. 'Étoufée' a thick stew in which crawfish, prawns and crab from the rivers in the Mississippi Delta are cooked, is also a French dish. Spices too were introduced by the French; dried onion and garlic, cayenne pepper, dried oregano and thyme.

The result is a rustic style of gastronomy with layers of rich flavours and high in calories like the imaginative gumbos (a type of soup thickened with okra) and the spicy, rice jambalayas (possibly adapted from paella or from Provençal rice dishes) served with chicken or prawns.

The Spanish influence is found in the fried dishes with chicken, oysters and prawns fried in a light batter and in the 'empanadillas' with a variety of fillings. They are also responsible for the sweet buñuelos (beignets) liberally sprinkled with sugar.

The fusion of cultures reached into every aspect of the cuisine including the crusty French baguettes, cornbreads and bread crumbs for stuffing poultry before roasting.

The contrast between sweet and sour and the hot spicy sauces (the world famous Tabasco sauce originates from Louisiana), sweet pastry tarts and the cocktails, are all drawn from the mix of cultures in the region.

So wide is the Cajun gastronomic culture that there is a museum, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum of New Orleans which includes the Cocktail Museum, dedicated to it.