Cajun or Creole?

Bourbon Street in New Orleans. USA

Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans in Louisiana USA

New Orleans is a place to eat like there is no tomorrow. Coming to New Orleans requires indulging the senses, whether it is the eyes at Mardi Gras, the ears at Jazz Fest or one’s taste buds at any local restaurant.

Cooking in New Orleans is dominated by two words: Cajun and Creole. Creole cooking is much more common in New Orleans than Cajun but the distinctions have been fading away. Both are French-derived and have evolved to fame on their own. While chefs or diners may have pronounced preferences for one camp or the other, the truth is that neighbors share recipes. Both Creole and Cajun cooking have similar gumbos, etouffees, jambalaya and other dishes but there are distinctions between the two.

Creole means many things in New Orleans but in terms of food, it refers to the combination of culinary traditions from the original European colonists and African slaves. Essentially, they created Creole food when they applied their old techniques to the food available in Louisiana. Creole food was also influenced by Native Americans who showed the Europeans how to use new ingredients.

Creole food follows the same ideas whether it is a fancy or simple version. Cooks layer flavors in recipes. Fish and meat are accompanied by sauces. Some classic Creole dishes include Court Bouillon, a sort of Bouillabaisse with tomatoes, or Oysters Rockefeller which bakes the oysters with a pureed spinach and herb top. Trout Meuniere features a brown butter sauce and Amandine adds almonds.

Both the city’s European Creoles and African American Creoles cook Creole food. The African American Creoles favor the heavier use of tomatoes and more brown gravies than the European Creoles. They favor more cream and butter. Soul food also comes under the umbrella of Creole food. Creole soul food is spicier than Southern soul food and takes advantage of all of Louisiana’s abundant seafood. It’s as easy to find stuffed crabs as it is to find smothered pork chops.

Cajun cooking is an evolved rustic cuisine developed by South Louisiana’s Cajun people. The descendants of the French Acadians were forced out of Canada by the English in the 1750s. They settled the Atchafalaya River basin in central southern Louisiana. Most were farmers but eventually learned to fish the bayous and swamps for fish and crawfish. In recent decades, as Cajun food has become more popular, many chefs came to New Orleans knowing the locals and visitors here would welcome their cuisine.

Originally, Cajun cooking reflected their humble beginnings in Louisiana. Cajuns typically cooked one dish in a large pot, stretched whatever meat or fish was available to feed many and ate it over rice. Setting a huge pot on a table didn’t really work well for restaurants. So Cajun cooking was refined by chefs like Paul Prudhomme, a bona fide Cajun from Opelousas. Prudhomme translated Cajun recipes to be cooked to order in a restaurant, keeping both the food and the flavor fresh. But he worked in Creole restaurants in New Orleans and is the first to say that he cooks the cuisine of South Louisiana. There are many chefs in New Orleans who do call themselves and their food Cajun.

Prudhomme’s famous Blackened Redfish was invented in New Orleans and is not a traditional Cajun dish. In fact, it isn’t supposed to be raging with cayenne pepper heat. When chefs around the country tried to recreate his dish, they often overspiced and overcooked the fish. He’s spent half his career trying to set the record straight as he battled the popularity of Cajun culture. That popularity has helped spread the music and culture of Cajun country. But with food, it has reduced “Cajun” to a marketing term that only means volcanic heat. Cajun cooking should give you a warm feeling all over, not a scorched throat. The best way to taste the difference for yourself is to find some Cajun cooking while you are in town and enjoy it.