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Louisiana is home to two unique types of cuisine: Creole and Cajun. Though Creole and Cajun are often grouped together, they are two distinct types of food that evolved separately. Louisiana Creole was created by the blend of various cultures, especially the French and Spanish, but also influenced by Portuguese, Italian, Native American, and African cultures. The first European settlers in the region arrived in the eighteenth century, and the term creole became used to describe the second generation of Europeans in the colony, that is, those who were born in Louisiana. The Creoles were descendents of European aristocrats, and soon began to blend with the natives and Africans.
The Cajuns, on the other hand, were French speakers who moved to the region from Acadia, or what is now Nova Scotia, after losing the French and Indian war and being forced out. The term cajun is derived from the word Acadian.
Both groups settled in lower Louisiana, and their communities have blended to a degree and continue to coexist today. The two cuisines differ in a few major ways.
Creole: Creole cuisine, like its people, is a blend of French, Spanish, Native American, and African traditions. In New Orleans, the center of both Creole and Cajun cuisine, it is generally accepted that Creole cuisine is seen as fancy, classical cuisine, because of the aristocratic lineage of the Creoles. The Creole cuisine uses fine ingredients, like shrimp and oyster, as well as ingredients that are not native to the region, since the rich Creoles could afford to import more exotic foods.
Cajun: Cajun cuisine is a simpler, more rustic style of food, with entire meals often made in one pot. The ingredients differ from Creole cuisine in that they include more of the plants and animals native to the region, including wild game like rabbit, squirrel, and alligator. Cajun cuisine also tends to be spicier than Creole cuisine.
The holy trinity of spices is the name given to the spice mixture common in Creole and Cajun cuisine. The spice blend consists of three ingredients: chopped onions, bell pepper, and celery. The holy trinity forms the flavor base for many Creole and Cajun dishes, including gumbo and jambalaya.
Gumbo has been a specialty in both Creole and Cajun cuisines since the eighteenth century. Gumbo is a stew made of many ingredients, including meats like shellfish, sausage, poultry or pork, vegetables, and spices. The word gumbo likely came from an African (Bantu) word for okra, which is traditionally used as a thickening agent in the stew. The dish was likely influenced by African cuisine brought to southern Louisiana by enslaved Africans.
Cajun gumbo is usually made with a Cajun roux, a dark gravy made from oil or lard and flour, and includes vegetables like celery and bell peppers. Cajun gumbo is usually darker and spicier than Creole gumbo. Creole roux is made from butter and flour, in the classic French style. Butter (and dairy in general) was difficult to come by when Cajun food was made. Creole gumbo typically includes tomatoes and seafood. Both varieties use poultry, sausage, and shellfish or a combination of meats.
Jambalaya is a rice dish in Creole and Cajun cuisine that has roots in Spanish paella. Made with meat like chicken or andouille sausage, seafood, the holy trinity of spices, stock, and rice, this dish is an example of a one-pot meal that is characteristic of Cajun cuisine. However, Creole jambalaya is the more popular variety, which includes tomatoes. Cajun jambalaya is more brown than red, and does not include tomatoes. Cajun jambalaya also often includes local meats, like crawfish, alligator, or turtle.
Crawfish (sometimes called crayfish) are small shellfish that look like miniature lobsters, and are found in much of the fresh water of southern Louisiana. Crawfish are eaten in a variety of ways, but one of the most popular is an event known as a crawfish boil. Crawfish festivals and various events are held every summer across the state. Whole crawfish are dropped into boiling water by someone known as a boil master, seasoned with spices like cayenne and hot sauce, and strained. They are then sold by the pound to diners, and dumped on the table for everyone to dig right in. Crawfish boils have become popular events in many parts of Louisiana, bringing together entire communities over their shared culture.
Red Beans and Rice
Red beans and rice is a staple in Creole cuisine, made from the named ingredients in addition to the holy trinity of spices and sometimes pork. This dish is made from kidney beans and flavored with bones from pork and white rice. This dish is one of the few mild dishes in Louisiana cuisine, though it is usually served with hot sauce on the table.