Jambalaya with chicken, Andouille sausage, rice, shrimp, celery, and spices.
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Jambalaya originated in the Caribbean Islands. The Spanish culture mixed with the native foods created what is known as Jambalaya. Jambalaya is traditionally made in three parts, with meat and vegetables, and is completed by adding stock and rice. It is also a close cousin to the saffron colored paella found in Spanish cuisine.
There are two primary methods of making jambalaya.
The first and most common is Creole jambalaya (also called "red jambalaya"). First, meat is added to the trinity of celery, peppers, and onions; the meat is usually chicken and sausage such as andouille or smoked sausage. Next vegetables and tomatoes are added to cook, followed by seafood. Rice and stock are added in equal proportions at the very end. The mixture is brought to a boil and left to simmer for 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the recipe, with infrequent stirring. Towards the end of the cooking process, stirring usually ceases. Some versions call for the jambalaya to be baked after the cooking of all the ingredients.
The second style, more characteristic of southwestern and south-central Louisiana, is Cajun jambalaya, which contains no tomatoes (the idea being the farther away from New Orleans one gets, the less common tomatoes are in dishes). The meat is browned in a cast-iron pot. The bits of meat that stick to the bottom of the pot (fond) are what give a Cajun jambalaya its brown color. A little vegetable oil is added if there is not enough fat in the pot. The trinity (of 50% onions, 25% celery, and 25% green or red bell pepper, although proportions can be altered to suit one's taste) is added and sautéed until soft. Stock and seasonings are added in the next step, and then the meats are returned to the pot. This mixture is then simmered, covered, for at least one hour. Lastly, the mixture is brought to a boil and rice is added to the pot. It is then covered and left to simmer over very low heat for at least 1/2 hour without stirring. The dish is finished when the rice has cooked.
A third method is less common. In this version, meat and vegetables are cooked separately from the rice. At the same time, rice is cooked in a savory stock. It is added to the meat and vegetables before serving. This is called "white jambalaya." This dish is rare in Louisiana as it is seen as a "quick" attempt to make jambalaya, popularized outside the state to shorten cooking time.
Many people in the south, and typically in Louisiana, enjoy a simpler Jambalaya style. This style is cooked the same as the cajun style, but there are no vegetables. Many restaurants serve this style as opposed to the others, because it is more child-friendly, has a more consistent texture, and is easier to make. The famous Jambalaya Shoppe serves this simpler style, which is a local favorite.
Jambalaya is considered by most Louisianans to be a filling but simple-to-prepare rice dish; gumbos, étouffées, and creoles are considered more difficult to perfect. Most often a long grain white rice is used in making jambalaya.
Jambalaya is differentiated from gumbo and étouffée by the way in which the rice is included. In these dishes, the rice is cooked separately and is served as a bed on which the main dish is served. In the usual method of preparing jambalaya, a rich stock is created from vegetables, meat, and seafood; raw rice is then added to the broth and the flavor is absorbed by the grains as the rice cooks.
Creole jambalaya originates from the French Quarter of New Orleans, in the original European sector. It was an attempt by the Spanish to make paella in the New World, where saffron was not readily available due to import costs. Tomatoes became the substitute for saffron. As time went on, French influence became strong in New Orleans, and spices from the Caribbean changed this New World paella into a unique dish. In modern Louisiana, the dish has evolved along a variety of different lines. Creole jambalaya, or red jambalaya as it is called by Cajuns, is found primarily in and around New Orleans, where it is simply known as 'jambalaya'. Creole jambalaya includes tomatoes, whereas Cajun jambalaya does not.
Cajun Jambalaya originates from Louisiana's rural, low-lying swamp country where crawfish, shrimp, oysters, alligator, duck, turtle, boar, venison, nutria and other game were readily available. Any variety or combination of meats, including chicken or turkey may be used to make jambalaya. Cajun jambalaya is known as 'Brown jambalaya' in the New Orleans area; to Cajuns it is simply known as 'jambalaya.' Cajun jambalaya has more of a smoky and spicy flavor than its cousin Creole jambalaya. The white French Creoles introduced jambalaya to the Cajuns, but since tomatoes were rarely used in Cajun cooking, they omitted them, browning the meat for color instead.
The first appearance in print of any variant of the word 'jambalaya' in any language occurred in Leis amours de Vanus; vo, Lou paysan oou théâtré, by Fortuné (Fortunat) Chailan, first published in Provençal in 1837. The earliest appearance of the word in print in English occurs in the May 1849 issue of the American Agriculturalist, page 161, where Solon Robinson refers to a recipe for 'Hopping Johnny (jambalaya)'. Jambalaya did not appear in a cookbook until 1878, when The Gulf City Cook Book, by the ladies of the St. Francis Street Methodist Church, was printed in South Mobile, Alabama. It contains a recipe for "JAM BOLAYA".
Jambalaya experienced a brief jump in popularity during the 1920s and 1930s because of its flexible recipe. The dish was little more than the rice and vegetables the populace could afford, but the recipe grew from humble roots.
The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that 'jambalaya' comes from the Provençal word 'jambalaia', meaning a mish mash, or mixup, and also meaning a pilau (pilaf) of rice. This is supported by the fact that the first printed appearance of the word is in a Provençal poem published in 1837.
There are many myths about the origin of the name 'jambalaya.' One commonly repeated folklore is that the word derives from the combination of the French 'jambon' meaning ham, the French article 'à la', a contraction of 'à la manière de' meaning "in the style of", and 'ya', thought to be of West African origin meaning rice. Hence, the dish was named jamb à la ya. European explorers had imported rice from Asia and Africa. Enslaved Africans already had a native name for this crop; they called it 'ya'. As Europeans learned the term 'ya' for rice, it became included in the name of the dish. However, this theory is largely discredited. Ham is not the signature element of the dish, so there is no reason why it would be featured in the name. Furthermore, there is no known African language in which 'ya' means "rice."
Another popular source suggests that the word comes from the Spanish 'jamón' ("ham") + 'paella', a noted Spanish rice dish. However, the evidence for this idea is also thin. Again, ham is not a featured element of the dish, and Spanish speakers would call a ham paella 'paella con jamón', not 'jamón paella.'
The Dictionary of American Food and Drink offers this creative old wives' tale about the origin of the word:
Late one evening a traveling gentleman stopped by a New Orleans inn which had little food remaining from the evening meal. The traveler instructed the cook, "Jean, balayez!" or "Jean, sweep something together!" in the local dialect. The guest pronounced the resulting hodge-podge dish as "Jean balayez."
Native American claim
The Atakapa tribe claims the origin of the name. The original word "Sham, pal ha! Ya!" means "Be full, not skinny! Eat Up!" with a French equivalent of "Bon appétit!". Spanish influence resulted in the current spelling of the name.
- Arroz con pollo, Arroz con gandules (Latin America)
- Biriani (South Asia)
- Fried rice (East Asia)
- Jollof rice (West Africa)
- Kabsa (Saudi Arabia)
- Kedgeree (United Kingdom)
- Nasi goreng (Indonesia)
- Paella (Spain)
- Pilaf/Pilau (Greece, Balkans, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, South Asia)
- Rice and peas (Caribbean)
- Risotto (Italy)
- Spanish rice (Mexico)
- Yeung Chow fried rice (China)
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- Chronology of all early mentions of Jambalaya in print.
- How to cook cajun jambalaya. A video documenting the cajun variation of jambalaya's preparation, reported by the Houma Courier and Thibodaux Daily Comet.