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Cajun cuisine (French: cuisine cadienne [kɥi.zin ka.dʒɛn], Spanish: cocina acadiense) is a style of cooking developed by the Cajun–Acadians who were deported from Acadia to Louisiana during the 18th century and who incorporated West African, French and Spanish cooking techniques into their original cuisine.
Cajun cuisine is sometimes referred to as a 'rustic cuisine', meaning that it is based on locally available ingredients and that preparation is relatively simple.
An authentic Cajun meal is usually a three-pot affair, with one pot dedicated to the main dish, one dedicated to steamed rice, specially made sausages, or some seafood dish, and the third containing whatever vegetable is plentiful or available. Crawfish, shrimp, and andouille sausage are staple meats used in a variety of dishes.
The aromatic vegetables green bell pepper (piment doux), onion, and celery are called "the trinity" by Cajun chefs in Cajun and Louisiana Creole cuisines. Roughly diced and combined in cooking, the method is similar to the use of the mirepoix in traditional French cuisine which blends roughly diced carrot, onion, and celery. Characteristic aromatics for the Creole version may also include parsley, bay leaf, green onions, dried cayenne pepper, and dried black pepper.
The Acadians were a group of French colonists who lived in Acadia, what is today Eastern Canada. In the mid-18th century, they were deported from Acadia by the British during the French and Indian War in what they termed le Grand Dérangement, and many of them ended up settling in Southern Louisiana. : 6
Due to the extreme change in climate, Acadians were unable to cook their original dishes. : 20 Soon, their former culinary traditions were adapted and, in time, incorporated not only Indigenous American traditions, but also African-American traditions--as is exemplified in the classic Cajun dish "Gumbo", which is named for its principal ingredient (Okra) using the West African name for that very ingredient: "Gumbo," in West Africa, means "Okra".
Many other meals developed along these lines, adapted in no small part from Haiti, to become what is now considered classic Cajun cuisine traditions : 19–20 (not to be confused with the more modern concept associated with Prudhomme's style).
Up through the 20th century, the meals were not elaborate but instead, rather basic.: 23 The public's false perception of "Cajun" cuisine was based on Prudhomme's style of Cajun cooking, which was spicy, flavorful, and not true to the classic form of the cuisine.
Cajun and Creole cuisine have been mistaken to be the same, but the origins of Creole cooking began in New Orleans, and Cajun cooking came 40 years after the establishment of New Orleans. Today, most restaurants serve dishes that consist of Cajun styles, which Paul Prudhomme dubbed "Louisiana cooking". In home-cooking, these individual styles are still kept separate. However, there are fewer and fewer people cooking the classic Cajun dishes that would have been eaten by the original settlers.: 30
Cajun cooking methods
- Barbecuing—similar to "low and slow" Southern barbecue traditions, but with Creole/Cajun seasoning
- Baking—direct and indirect dry heat in a furnace or oven, faster than smoking but slower than grilling
- Grilling—direct heat on a shallow surface, fastest of all variants; sub-variants include:
- Braising—combining a direct dry heat charbroil-grill or gridiron-grill with a pot filled with broth for direct moist heat, faster than smoking but slower than regular grilling and baking; time starts fast, slows down, then speeds up again to finish
- Boiling—as in boiling of crabs, crawfish, or shrimp, in seasoned liquid
- Deep frying
- Smothering—cooking a vegetable or meat with low heat and small amounts of water or stock, similar to braising; étouffée is a popular variant done with crawfish or shrimp
- Pan-broiling or pan-frying
- Injecting—using a large syringe-type setup to place seasoning deep inside large cuts of meat; this technique is much newer than the others on this list, but very common in Cajun cuisine
- Stewing, also known as fricassée
Deep-frying of turkeys or oven-roasted turduckens entered southern Louisiana cuisine more recently. Also, blackening of fish or chicken and barbecuing of shrimp in the shell are excluded because they were not prepared in traditional Cajun cuisine. Blackening was actually an invention by chef Paul Prudhomme in the 1970s, becoming associated with Cajun cooking, and presented as such by him, but is not a true historical or traditional Cajun cooking process.
The following is a partial list of ingredients used in Cajun cuisine and some of the staple ingredients of the Acadian food culture.
Fruits and vegetables
- Bell peppers (green or red)
- Cayenne peppers
- Celery (seed, leaf and stalk)
- Collard greens
- Mirlitons (chayotes or
- Satsuma oranges
- Scallions (green onions or onion tops)
- Sweet potatoes
- Tabasco pepper
Meat and seafood
Cajun foodways include many ways of preserving meat, some of which are waning due to the availability of refrigeration and mass-produced meat at the grocer. Smoking of meats remains a fairly common practice, but once-common preparations such as turkey or duck confit (preserved in poultry fat, with spices) are now seen even by Acadians as quaint rarities.
Game (and hunting) are still uniformly popular in Acadiana.
The recent increase of catfish farming in the Mississippi Delta has brought about an increase in its usage in Cajun cuisine in the place of the more traditional wild-caught trout (the saltwater species).
- Saltwater or brackish water species
Also included in the seafood mix are some so-called trash fish that would not sell at market because of their high bone to meat ratio or required complicated cooking methods. These were brought home by fishermen to feed the family. Examples are garfish, black drum also called gaspergou or just "goo", croaker, and bream.
- Game birds
- Andouille—a spicy smoked sausage, characterized by a coarse-ground texture
- Boudin—a fresh sausage made with green onions, pork, and rice. Pig's blood is sometimes added to produce boudin rouge. Other versions can contain seafood, such as crawfish.
- Chaurice, a sausage similar to Spanish chorizo
- Chaudin or ponce—a pig's stomach, stuffed with spiced pork & smoked.
- Ham hocks
- Wild boar or feral hog
- Head cheese
- Gratons—hog cracklings or pork rinds; fried, seasoned pork fat & skin, sometimes with small bits of meat attached. Similar to Spanish chicharrones.
- Hot link sausage
- Pork sausage (fresh)—not smoked or cured, but highly seasoned. Mostly used in gumbos. The sausage itself does not include rice, separating it from boudin.
- Salt pork
- Tasso—a highly seasoned, smoked pork shoulder of the Choctaw
Beef and dairy
Though parts of Acadiana are well suited to cattle or dairy farming, beef is not often used in a pre-processed or uniquely Cajun form. It is usually prepared fairly simply as chops, stews, or steaks, taking a cue from Texas to the west. Ground beef is used as is traditional throughout the US, although seasoned differently.
Dairy farming is not as prevalent as in the past, but there are still some farms in the business. There are no unique dairy items prepared in Cajun cuisine. Traditional Cajun and New Orleans Creole-influenced desserts are common.
Other game meats
- Alligator gar, or gator gar
- Frog, usually bullfrogs (not just the legs, but the entire creature)
- Gros bec, commonly called night heron
- Skunk, or mouffette
- Virginia opossum, or sarigue
- Bay leaf
- Black pepper
- Cayenne pepper
- Chili pepper
- Dried shrimp
- Green mint
- Onion (bell pepper, onion, and celery used together are known as the "holy trinity" of Cajun cuisine)
- Parsley, flat leaf
- Sassafras leaves (dried & ground into the spice known as filé for gumbo of the Choctaw)
- Sugarcane, also cane syrup, brown sugar and molasses
- Summer savory
- "Creole/Cajun spice" blends such as Tony Chachere's are sometimes used in Cajun kitchens, but do not suit every cook's style because Creole- and Cajun-style seasoning is often achieved from scratch, even by taste.
- Cajun seasonings consist of a blend of salt with a variety of spices, most common being cayenne pepper and garlic. The spicy heat comes from the cayenne pepper, while other flavors come from bell pepper, paprika, green onions, parsley and more.
- Hot sauce, including Tabasco sauce, which by 1885 was well known in Louisiana and abroad.
- Marinades made with olive oil, brown sugar, and citrus juices
- Mushroom catsup
- Seafood boil mix
- Various barbecue rubs similar to those in other states.
- Vinegar seasoned with small, pickled, hot green peppers is a common condiment with many Cajun meals.
- Walnut catsup
- Worcestershire sauce
- Dark roux—Cajuns inherited roux from the French. However, unlike the French, theirs is made with oil or bacon fat and more lately with olive oil, and not normally with butter. It is used as a thickening agent, especially in gumbo and étouffée.
- Preparation of a dark roux is probably the most involved or complicated procedure in Cajun cuisine, involving heating fat and flour very carefully, constantly stirring for about 15–45 minutes (depending on the color of the desired product), until the mixture has darkened in color and developed a nutty flavor. The temperature should not be too high, as a burnt roux renders a dish unpalatable.
- Light roux—The secret to making a good gumbo is pairing the roux with the protein. A dark roux, with its strong (dense) nutty flavor will completely overpower a simple seafood gumbo, but is the perfect complement to a gumbo using chicken, sausage, crawfish or alligator.
- A light roux, on the other hand, is better suited for strictly seafood dishes and unsuitable for meat gumbos for the reason that it does not support the heavier meat flavor as well. Pairing roux with protein follows the same orthodox philosophy as pairing wine with protein.
- Stocks: Cajun stocks are more heavily seasoned than Continental counterparts, and the shellfish stock sometimes made with shrimp and crawfish heads is unique to Cajun cuisine.
- Fish stock and Court-bouillon
- Shellfish stock
- Chicken stock
Boudin—a type of sausage made from pork, pork liver, rice, garlic, green onions and other spices. It is widely available by the link or pound from butcher shops. Boudin is typically stuffed in a natural casing and has a softer consistency than other, better-known sausage varieties. It is usually served with side dishes such as rice dressing, maque choux or bread. Boudin balls are commonly served in southern Louisiana restaurants and are made by taking the boudin out of the case and frying it in spherical form.
Gumbo—High on the list of favorites of Cajun cooking are the soups called gumbos. Contrary to non-Cajun or Continental beliefs, gumbo does not mean simply "everything in the pot". Gumbo exemplifies the influence of French, Spanish, African and Native American food cultures on Cajun cuisine.
There are two theories as to the etymological origins of the name. "Some believe that gumbo gets its name from the Choctaw word for filé powder, kombo; others suggest it’s taken from the West African Bantu name for okra, ki ngombo." Both filé and okra can be used as thickening agents in gumbo.
Many claim that gumbo is a Cajun dish, but gumbo was established long before the Acadian arrival.
Its early existence came via the early French Creole culture In New Orleans, Louisiana, where French, Spanish and Africans frequented and also influenced by later waves of Italian, German and Irish settlers.
Jambalaya—The only certain thing that can be said about jambalaya is that it contains rice, some sort of meat (such as chicken or beef), seafood (such as shrimp or crawfish) plus other items that may be available. Usually, it will include green peppers, onions, celery, tomatoes and hot chili peppers. This is also a great pre-Acadian dish, established by the Spanish in Louisiana.
Rice and gravy—Rice and gravy dishes are a staple of Cajun cuisine and is usually a brown gravy based on pan drippings, which are deglazed and simmered with extra seasonings and served over steamed or boiled rice.
The dish is traditionally made from cheaper cuts of meat and cooked in a cast-iron pot, typically for an extended time period in order to let the tough cuts of meat become tender. Beef, pork, chicken or any of a large variety of game meats are used for its preparation. Popular local varieties include hamburger steak, smothered rabbit, turkey necks, and chicken fricassee.
Food as an event
The crawfish boil is a celebratory event where Cajuns boil crawfish, potatoes, onions and corn in large pots over propane cookers. Lemons and small muslin bags containing a mixture of bay leaves, mustard seeds, cayenne pepper, and other spices, commonly known as "crab boil" or "crawfish boil" are added to the water for seasoning.
The results are then dumped onto large, newspaper-draped tables and in some areas covered in Creole/Cajun spice blends, such as REX, Zatarain's, Louisiana Fish Fry, or Tony Chachere's. Also, cocktail sauce, mayonnaise, and hot sauce are sometimes used. The seafood is scooped onto large trays or plates and eaten by hand.
During times when crawfish are not abundant, shrimp and crabs are prepared and served in the same manner.
Often, newcomers to the crawfish boil or those unfamiliar with the traditions are jokingly warned "not to eat the dead ones." This comes from the common belief that when live crawfish are boiled, their tails curl beneath themselves, but when dead crawfish are boiled, their tails are straight and limp. Seafood boils with crabs and shrimp are also popular.
The traditional Cajun outdoor food event hosted by a farmer in the rural areas of the Acadiana. Family and friends of the farmer gather to socialize, play games, dance, drink, and have a copious meal consisting of hog and other dishes.: 111 Men have the task of slaughtering a hog, cutting it into usable parts, and cooking the main pork dishes while women have the task of making boudin.: 110
Cochon de lait
Similar to a family boucherie, the cochon de lait is a food event that revolves around pork but does not need to be hosted by a farmer. Traditionally, a suckling pig was purchased for the event, but in modern cochon de laits, adult pigs are used.: 111
Unlike the family boucherie, a hog is not butchered by the hosts and there are generally not as many guests or activities.: 112 The host and male guests have the task of roasting the pig (see pig roast) while female guests bring side dishes.
Rural Mardi Gras
The traditional Cajun Mardi Gras (see: Courir de Mardi Gras) is a Mardi Gras celebration in rural Cajun Parishes. The tradition originated in the 18th century with the Cajuns of Louisiana, but it was abandoned in the early 20th century because of unwelcome violence associated with the event. In the early 1950s the tradition was revived in Mamou in Evangeline Parish.: 112
The event revolves around male maskers on horseback who ride into the countryside to collect food ingredients for the party later on. They entertain householders with Cajun music, dancing, and festive antics in return for the ingredients. The preferred ingredient is a live chicken in which the householder throws the chicken to allow the maskers to chase it down (symbolizing a hunt), but other ingredients include rice, sausage, vegetables, or frozen chicken.: 112
Unlike other Cajun events, men take no part in cooking the main course for the party, and women prepare the chicken and ingredients for the gumbo.: 113 Once the festivities begin, the Cajun community members eat and dance to Cajun music until midnight after which is the beginning of Lent.: 113
Other dishes and sides
- Alligator meat
- Andouille sausage
- Boiled crawfish
- Boudin balls—Boudin sausage filling that is rolled into a ball, battered and deep fried, instead of being stuffed into pork casings.
- Creole rice
- Catfish (or redfish) court-bouillon
- Cochon de lait—suckling pig
- Couche couche (Creole corn mush)
- Crawfish bisque
- Crawfish étouffée
- Crawfish pie
- Dirty rice
- Fried frog legs
- Gumbo z'herbes / /
- Hog's head cheese
- Maque choux
- Pecan pralines
- Pepper jelly
- Potato salad—generally made with egg, potato, celery, onions, mayonnaise, mustard and sometimes bell pepper
- Seafood-stuffed mirliton
- Tarte à la Bouillie—sweet-dough custard tarts
- Tasso ham
List of Cajun-influenced chefs
In popular culture
- Cuisine of New Orleans
- Cuisine of the United States
- List of festivals in Louisiana
- Louisiana Creole cuisine
- Acadian cuisine
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