New Orleans is unlike any place I had previously been in America. The city authentically has its own culture, language and food which is decidedly un-American, because of its varied heritage.
Excited about its culinary traditions, in particular, Dom and I did a free walking food tour of the city to learn about how and why there came to be two distinct cuisines in this part of Louisiana; Creole and Cajun.
Louisiana Creoles are associated in particular with the city of New Orleans and describes people who have French or Spanish ancestry. In the 1700s the city was a hub for white sailors, traders and plantation owners and these men started to marry African and African- American free women of colour, giving the association of Creole today to also include people of African ancestry.
Cajuns were French citizens who had been resident in Canada but who were expelled when the British took over in 1756. Cajuns live all over the Louisiana region although Lafayette is considered the heart of Cajun culture.
So, what should you try if you are visiting this area of the States?
1.Gumbo – The Gumbo is a true mix of French, African and Native Indian foods and it is the official dish of Louisiana, which is why it is at number 1 on my list! It is a thick stew, usually made with shrimp or chicken and French Andouille sausage that is served over rice. Orka -a vegetable from West Africa, is traditionally used as the thickener but a French roux or ground sassafras leaf, a local ingredient used by Choctaw Indians, can also be used.
Verdict: It is filling and warming dish with a little spice that’s full of history and made with lots of love – perfect for a hearty supper.
2. Po Boy – Every great US city has its native sandwich (think Philly cheese steak sub/ New York’s pastrami on rye) and the Po Boy is New Orleans’ version. The filling can be almost anything but is usually seafood or roast beef. It is actually the bread that makes a sandwich a Po Boy, it requires a 40-inch loaf that is fluffy in the middle and crusty on the outside. It reportedly got its name when a sandwich shop started serving striking street car conductors free sandwiches in 1929. The striking men became jokingly known as ‘poor boys’ which became shortened to ‘po boy’ and so the sandwich was born.
Verdict: This sloppy baguette style sandwich can be found in Po Boy shops across New Orleans. There is fierce competition for the title of best Po Boy – a title that is fought for at the annual Oak Street Po’Boy Festival.
3. Jambalaya – This is a Creole dish inspired by Spanish paella. Like its Spanish cousin, it consists of meat, seafood, vegetables and rice which is all prepared together in the same pan, but this version usually includes Andouille sausage and mine came with alligator sausage! New Orleans style jambalaya is made with tomatoes and is prepared with the Creole ‘holy trinity’ of celery, peppers and onions.
Verdict: This is a mix and match, throw everything into the pot, sort of dish and you could find all sorts of hams, shrimps and sausage inside it. My recommendation – go with the chef and take it as it comes, alligator meat and all, it is really good!
4. Red Beans and Rice – Every Creole family reportedly has this dish on Mondays as it uses leftover Sunday Roast meats in the cooking. It is a slow-cook one-pot affair with sausage, ham, pork bones, red beans, the creole holy trinity and yep you guessed it..rice! Despite it being a homely, no frills dish – it is a food served in restaurants and family gatherings and social events such a Super Bowls and Mardis Gras. It is part and parcel of the New Orleans identity and was a favourite of Louis Armstrong, the jazz musician. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, it was reportedly the number one thing that residents missed when they relocated to other areas.
Verdict: The dish, it is fair to say, is not much to look at, but the joy is all in the flavour. It is comforting, nutritious and lip-smackingly good. My favourite food I tried when I was in New Orleans and one I’ll try to recreate at home.
5. Beignet – Now time for some desert. The beignet is essentially a French fritter – a sweet choux pastry that is thrown into boiling hot oil for a few seconds and dusted in powdered sugar. The most famous place in town to get one (and see them being made) is Cafe Du Monde, in the French Quarter.
Verdict: It is the official doughnut of Louisiana and is perfect for a sweet pick-me-up with a cafe au lait. You can’t leave town without trying one!
The walking tour was with Free Tours By Foot and is a ‘pay what you like’ set up. It was a food history tour, not a tasting tour – but the restaurant recommendations and knowledge of the tour guide was excellent. Highly recommended, I learnt so much.