This time of year, everyone has their favorite Mardi Gras treats—king cake and brightly colored donuts come to mind. There’s nowhere Mardi Gras is more highly celebrated and anticipated each year than in New Orleans, Louisiana (fondly known as NOLA).
While king cake and beignets are undeniably delicious, they’re not all that NOLA has to offer. This year, we’re taking a deep dive into the cooking traditions and culinary classics that make NOLA the fantastic food city that it is.
NOLA cuisine is largely influenced by its dual Creole and Cajun heritages. While both cultures use similar flavors and cooking styles in their dishes (in fact, many people think they’re the same thing), there are a few key differences between the two.
The Cajuns arrived in Louisiana by way of Acadia, Canada, and brought with them their preference for well-seasoned food and meat products like andouille, boudin, and tasso (all various pork-based sausages). Many Cajun recipes start with a base of the holy trinity of onions, bell peppers, and celery, and overall tend to be hearty, rustic, unfussy dishes.
Meanwhile, the Creoles descend from the American-born offspring of the colonial French and Spanish upper-class settlers, who built up NOLA as a bustling urban center in the 18th century. Creole food is a bit more cosmopolitan than its Cajun counterpart, and highlights the various cultures that have influenced NOLA over the past few centuries, including French, Italian, Spanish, African, Caribbean, Native American, and Portuguese. Creole food takes cues from French cuisine, making use of rich sauces (like a roux) and complex techniques.
Enough history—it’s time to talk food! Whether you’re traveling down south for Mardi Gras or just trying to recreate a little NOLA spirit in your own kitchen, learning a bit more about traditional Creole and Cajun staples is going to have you feeling those NOLA vibes.
When you think of NOLA, you think of gumbo—this classic stew is actually Louisiana’s official state dish. While most families and restaurants have their own spin on the classic recipe, almost all recipes start with what Louisianans deem the holy trinity of onions, bell peppers, and celery, and use a classic French roux (a thickener for sauces made of flour and fat).
The dish also has Cajun and Creole variations—while Cajun preparations usually use a dark roux base and mix shellfish with andouille sausage or ham, Creole methods use shellfish and okra along with a filé powder of ground and dried sassafras leaves. No matter which method you try, you’re in for a treat. Gumbo is a hearty, satisfying, and delicious meal. Pro tip: the Plated gumbo recipe is super easy to scale up and make for a crowd, for your next dinner party.
Jambalaya is a classic Louisiana rice-and-meat dish that many confuse with gumbo. They key difference is that, while gumbo is made separately and served over rice, in jambalaya, the rice is prepared alongside other ingredients like andouille, chicken, crawfish, shrimp, and of course, the holy trinity of onion, bell peppers, and celery. Think of gumbo more as a stew, and jambalaya as more of a cousin of the traditional Spanish paella dish.
This is another great dish to serve at your next dinner party—especially because it’s mainly cooked in one pan, which means minimal clean up!
This traditional NOLA sandwich is served on French baguette bread and typically features either fried seafood (oysters, shrimp, or crab are common) or meat (like roast beef or fried chicken). Depending on whether you go the seafood or meat route, your sandwich will be prepared either hot or cold. Make it “dressed” by adding lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayonnaise or melted butter. If you haven’t already guessed, this is a messy sandwich—come prepared with a lot of napkins. Plated’s crispy fish number can hold you over until you get to NOLA.
You haven’t really experienced NOLA until you’ve taken part in a traditional crawfish boil. Unlike crab, scallops, and other saltwater based shellfish, crawfish is a freshwater shellfish that’s a staple of Cajun cuisine. Crawfish look like tiny lobsters (very cute) and are traditionally boiled, seasoned, and spread out on newspaper-clad tables, where families and friends gather to peel and eat the shellfish, using French bread to sop up the flavorful juices left behind. It’s a messy affair to be sure, but it’s a great bonding and eating activity for all ages.
If you walk by any bar or brunch table along Bourbon Street, you’re bound to find countless people sipping on a milky, frozen concoction known locally as milk punch. This milk and bourbon (or brandy) based drink is served icy cold, and usually garnished with a sprinkle of nutmeg. Milk punch is a variation on eggnog—so if you’re a fan of the creamy holiday drink, you’re going to love it’s NOLA cousin.
And last but not least—we have to talk about beignets, the classic Creole dessert (and breakfast too, let’s be real). Beignets are made from deep-fried choux pastry (another nod to NOLA’s French heritage). In NOLA, the beignets are made-to-order, so you can expect a hot, freshly fried and powdered treat whenever you order one.
If you’re not into the fried dough trend, many NOLA vendors also sell variations that use fried bananas or plantains in place of choux pastry, which lend a nice flavor and texture to the treat.
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