Cajun cuisine (in French: Cuisine cadienne) originates from the French-speaking Acadian or "Cajun" immigrants deported by the British from Acadia in Canada to the Acadiana region of Louisiana, USA. It is what could be called a rustic cuisine — locally available ingredients predominate, and preparation is simple. An authentic Cajun meal is usually a three-pot affair, with one pot dedicated to the main dish, one dedicated to steamed rice, skillet cornbread, or some other grain dish, and the third containing whatever vegetable is plentiful or available.
The aromatic vegetables bell pepper, onion, and celery are called by some chefs the holy trinity of Cajun cuisine. Finely diced and combined in cooking, the method is similar to the use of the mire poix in traditional French cuisine — which blends finely diced onion, celery, and carrot. Characteristic seasonings include parsley, bay leaf, "onion tops" or scallions, and dried cayenne pepper. The overall feel of the cuisine is more Mediterranean than North American.
Cajun cuisine developed out of necessity. The Acadian refugees, farmers rendered destitute by the British expulsion, had to learn to live off the land and adapted their French rustic cuisine to local (i.e. Louisiana) ingredients such as rice, crawfish, and sugar cane. Many households were large, consisting of eight to twelve people; thus, regardless what other vocations may have been followed by the head of household, most families also farmed. Feeding a large family, all of whose members did hard physical work every day, required a lot of food. Cajun cuisine grew out of supplementing rice with white meat, game or other proteins were available such as crawfish or any other type of river creature.
Cajun methods of preparation
- Barbecueing - similar to "slow and low" Texas barbecue traditions, but with Cajun seasoning.
- Boiling - as in boiling of crabs, crawfish, or shrimp, in seasoned liquid.
- Deep frying
- Étouffée - cooking a vegetable or meat in its own juices, similar to braising or what in New Orleans is called "smothering".
- Frying, also known as pan-frying.
- Grilling - faster than barbecueing.
- Injecting - using a large syringe-type setup to place seasoning deep inside large cuts of meat.
- Smoking - for flavoring, cooking or preserving meats.
- Stewing, also known as fricassee.
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. See Misconceptions below.
The following is a partial list of ingredients used in Cajun cuisine and some of the staple ingredients
of the Acadian food culture.
- Rice — long, medium, or short grain white; also popcorn rice
- Rice proved to be a valuable commodity in early Acadiana. With an abundance of water and a hot, humid climate, rice could be grown practically anywhere in the region, and grew feral in some areas. Rice became the predominant starch in the diet, easy to grow, store, and prepare. The oldest rice mill in operation in the United States, the Conrad Rice Mill, is located in New Iberia.
Fruits and vegetables
Meat and seafood
Cajun folkways 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 and redfish.
- 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, gaspergou, croaker, and bream.
- Farm Raised
- Turkey (and turkey confit)
- Turducken (deboned turkey stuffed with deboned duck stuffed with deboned chicken)
- Chicken (and Guinea Hen)
- Game birds
- Andouille - a spicy dry 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".
- Chaurice, similar to the Spanish chorizo
- Chaudin - a pig's stomach, stuffed with spiced pork & smoked. Also known as ponce.
- Ham hocks
- Head cheese
- Gratons - hog cracklings or pork rinds; fried, seasoned pork fat & skin, sometimes with small bits of meat attached. Similar to the Spanish chicharrones.
- 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
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 southern 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 southern US and New Orleans influenced desserts are common.
- "Cajun spice" blends such as Tony Chachere's are sometimes used in Acadiana kitchens, but do not suit every cook's style because Cajun-style seasoning is often achieved from scratch, even by taste. Whole peppers are almost never used in authentic Cajun dishes — ground Cayenne, paprika, and pepper sauces predominate.
- Hot sauce
- Seafood boil mix
- Vinegar seasoned with small, pickled, hot green peppers is a common condiment with many Cajun meals.
- Dark roux: The Acadians inherited the roux from the French. However, unlike the French, it is made with oil or bacon fat and more lately olive oil, and not butter, and it is used as a flavoring, especially in gumbo and etoufée. 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. A burnt roux renders a dish unpalatable. The scent of a good roux is so strong that even after leaving one's house the smell of roux is still embedded in one's clothes until they are washed. The scent is so strong and recognizable that others are able to tell if one is making a roux, and often infer that one is making a gumbo.
- Stocks: Acadian stocks are more heavily seasoned than Continental counterparts, and the shellfish stock sometimes made with shrimp and crawfish heads is unique to Cajun cuisine.
Noted by the popular Hank Williams
song, three of the primary dishes in Acadiana are "Jambalaya and-a crawfish pie and filé gumbo." One variation is that crawfish boils are more popular today than crawfish pies.
(sometimes spelled "boudain") is a type of sausage
made from pork, pork liver, rice, garlic and green onion
, and other spices. It is widely available by the link or pound from butcher shops. Boudin is usually made daily as it does not keep well for very long, even frozen. 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.
High on the list of favorites of Cajun cooking are the soups called gumbos. Gumbo exemplifies the influence of African and Native American food cultures on Cajun cuisine. The word originally meant okra, which is a word brought to the region from western Africa. Okra, which is a principal ingredient of many gumbo recipes, is used as a thickening agent and for its distinct vegetable flavor.
A filé gumbo is thickened with sassafras leaves after the gumbo has finished cooking, a practice borrowed from the Choctaw Indians. The backbone of a gumbo is a dark roux, which is made of flour, toasted until well browned, and fat or oil, not butter as with the French. The classic gumbo is made with chicken and the Cajun sausage called andouille, but the ingredients all depend on what is available at the moment.
Another classic Cajun dish is jambalaya. The only certain thing that can be said about a jambalaya is that it contains rice and almost anything else. Usually, however, one will find green peppers, onions, celery and hot chile peppers. Anything else is optional.
Food as an event
The crawfish boil
is a celebratory event where Cajuns boil crawfish, potatoes, onions and corn over large 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 covered in spice blends. Zatarain's, Louisiana Fish Fry and Tex Joy are popular commercial blends. Cocktail sauce
, mayonnaise and Tabasco
are common condiments. 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.
Attendees are encouraged to "suck the head" of a crawfish by separating the abdomen of the crustacean and sucking out the abdominal fat/juices. The practice is known by the common phrase is "Pinch the tail, suck the head." Other popular practices include kissing the tail section of a soon-to-be-cooked crawfish, leading to the vulgar phrase: "Kiss my ass, suck my head, eat me." The phrase has been printed on shirts and posters in years past.
Often, newcomers to the crawfish boil or those unfamiliar with the traditions are jokingly warned "not to eat the dead ones." When live crawfish are boiled, their tails curl beneath themselves. When dead crawfish are boiled, their tails are straight and limp.
Seafood boils with crabs and shrimp are also popular.
The traditional pig-slaughtering party, or Boucherie, where Cajuns would gather to socialize, play music, dance, and preserve meat does still occur in some rural communities, especially St. Martinville, but the exploitation of every last bit of meat, including organs and variety cuts in sausages such as 'boudin' (sometimes spelled boudain) and the inaccessible bits in the head as head cheese is no longer a necessity.
Other dishes and sides
Authentic Cajun food...
- is not fancy.
- is not extremely hot from pepper.
- does not use wine as part of the cooking.
- does not require expensive or exotic ingredients.
- is not available from a box.
- is often simple and brown.
- does not contain cream or pasta as an ingredient.
- is not often seen on restaurant menus.
- does not frequently use blackened meat.
- can be successfully made in areas outside of Cajun Country
There is a common misconception outside of south Louisiana that Cajun food is hot and spicy. An authentic Cajun dish will usually have a bit of a "kick" but will not be eye-wateringly hot. The Cajun cook does not seek to overpower the dish with simple heat — this is done by the diner at the table if they so wish. Cayenne pepper is the predominant choice of heat during preparation, though ground black pepper, and to a lesser extent white pepper, are used as well.
Cajun dishes prepared outside of Louisiana are often hotter and more heavily seasoned than their Louisiana counterparts, missing the flavor of the original dishes. Even andouille sausage, mild and smoky in Louisiana, gets the pepper treatment elsewhere. This is partially a result of the "Cajun" foods craze of the 1980s, when Cajun-style seasoning was popularized by chef Paul Prudhomme's creation of the very spicy dish called Blackened Redfish at his New Orleans restaurant "K-Paul's". It is also a result of recent "extreme" food fads, where many items are hotter than the originals.
Outside of southern Louisiana, foods prepared using Cajun-style seasoning are called Cajun, including some decidedly non-Cajun dishes such as red beans and rice, and blackened redfish. Sometimes the label is applied incorrectly to any dish including traditional Cajun ingredients such as cayenne pepper, or merely as a slogan, as in McDonalds' "Spicy Cajun McChicken".
Chefs trained in Louisiana, as well as Louisiana raised chefs can and do duplicate the original tastes successfully elsewhere, especially since the advent of mail-order ingredient deliveries. However, the buyer should beware that what may be a perfectly palatable dish may not be strictly "authentic".
Cajun cuisine is sometimes confused with Creole cuisine, and many outside of Louisiana don't make the distinction. Creole is more city – urban, cosmopolitan, and inspired by the French, Spanish, African, and Italian influences of New Orleans – while Cajun dishes have more of a French influence, filtered through common (to Louisiana) ingredients and techniques. This matter is complicated by the sharing of several dishes between the cuisines, including gumbo, gumbo z'herbes (a vegetarian gumbo), seafood à l'étouffée, and jambalaya, although New Orleans jambalaya and gumbo are prepared differently from their Cajun counterparts.
Further complicating this is that the term Creole is used to designate several somewhat distinct New Orleans food cultures. So-called 'haute-creole' cuisine was influenced in the past few decades by Cajun food as Creole restaurants such as Commander's Palace and K-Paul's created a distinct "Cajun-Creole fusion" cuisine combining Cajun flavors with Creole ingredients and preparation. Dishes rooted primarily in the New Orleans metropolitan area such as po'-boys, barbecued shrimp, or red beans and rice are in general Creole, not Cajun, as are most dishes involving a cream sauce or the French mother sauces.
This is a listing of dishes sometimes mistakenly called or thought to be Cajun but having origins elsewhere, usually in New Orleans
or in northern Louisiana, and sometimes are relatively unadopted in Acadiana:
Cajun or Cajun-influenced chefs
- Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen (ISBN 0-688-02847-0), from the main popularizer of Cajun flavors, this is the definitive "high" Cajun cookbook. Most of the recipes within are very traditional, with a world class chef's added touch.
- Chef John Folse's Plantation Celebrations (ISBN 0-9625152-2-1), a well-regarded cookbook from one of the great Cajun chefs.
- Louisiana Real and Rustic (ISBN 0-688-12721-5) by Emeril Lagasse with Marcelle Bienvenu. Despite Emeril's association with the Cajun/Creole fusion movement, this collaboration with Times-Picayune food writer Bienvenu is a bona fide and authentic look at the food folkways of Louisiana, with much focus on rural Acadiana. Marcelle Bienvenue is a native of St. Martinville, LA, in St. Martin Parish.
- Cajun Cuisine: Authentic Cajun Recipes from Louisiana's Bayou Country (ISBN 0-935619-00-3) by W. Thomas Angers.
- Chef John Folse's Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine (ISBN 0970445717) is considered by most cooks in Louisiana (as well as the vast majority of professional chefs in Louisiana) to be the most authentic and accurate cookbook produced so far. The book describes the history as well as the methods of preparation of both Cajun and Creole foods. It is indispensable because it compares and contrasts the two cuisines. Most Louisiana residents that consider themselves to be serious about food own a copy.