Jambalaya is a classic Louisiana dish that’s become emblematic of the state’s diverse culinary heritage, with roots in French, Spanish and West African cuisine. It’s a hearty and delicious meal with many variants and a fascinating history – as covered here in our Cooking the Classics series. Let’s take a deeper look, discover some fun facts, and, for those not from the South, learn how to eat chicken and shrimp jambalaya.
What is Jambalaya?
The standard jambalaya is made from rice, protein, vegetables, and spices. There are many different variants, but they generally fall into two categories: Cajun and Creole.
There is a lot of crossover between those two Louisiana cultures but, to oversimplify, Cajun generally refers to the country folk who originated the dish, and Creole to the city folk who refined it. The most noticeable difference between jambalayas is that, in general, Creole jambalaya is more likely to contain seafood (usually crawfish or shrimp).
You’ve probably noticed a similarity to other dishes, and that’s no accident. Jambalaya originated in south Louisiana in the 18th century, and reflects the cuisines of the European and African cultures present in the region at the time. Indeed, it has similarities with the Spanish paella, West African jollof rice, and a largely forgotten dish that was popular in the French Provinces at the time called jambalaia.
You’d think then, that the word 'jambalaya' is obviously derived from the word 'jambalaia', but it isn’t quite that simple. Jambalaia itself may well come from a Spanish portmanteau for the words jamon, meaning ham, and paella. Another possibility is that it combines the French word for ham, jambon, with the word for rice in several West African languages: yaya, aya, or ay.
Regardless of the word’s etymology, what we do know for sure is that jambalaya was the product of the Spanish, French, and West African Louisianians trying to replicate the cuisine of their homelands with different ingredients. In the case of paella, for example, it was easier to get tomatoes, which were imported to New Orleans, than saffron to colour the rice.
What to Serve with Jambalaya
Serving up a true Creole feast? Sure, an enormous pot of Jambalaya is an impressive and delicious centrepiece, but you’re also going to need some mouthwatering side dishes to top that table with. Here are some of our favourite authentic sides for chicken and shrimp jambalaya:
- Cornbread. This one’s essential for mopping up the flavourful juices of your jambalaya (in the South, cornbread is your napkin). As the jambalaya simmers, combine together some cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder in one bowl, and melted butter, buttermilk and egg in another. Then whisk both mixtures into a smooth batter and spread into a greased baking tin and cook in the over for about half an hour. You can also add cheese if it tickles your fancy.
- Greens. The Southern classic is, of course, collard greens, but you can also serve your jambalaya with chard instead. Simply job your greens roughly and sauté them in oil or bacon fat until they’re tender and wilted. (Note that chard will take a little longer to cook than collard greens.) You can also add another dimension by sautéing them with diced onions or bacon.
- Corn on the cob. A quick and easy classic. If you didn’t buy your cobs ready to cook, strip them of their husks and silks first, then top and tail them with a knife. Blanche the cobs in a pot of boiling water once your jambalaya’s cooking, then drain and set to one side. When your jambalaya is ready to serve, throw your cobs under the grill until the corn kernels start to brown and serve topped with butter and salt.
- Maque choux. If you want to use corn for jambalaya sides but don’t have it on the cob, then consider a tasty maque choux. Just braise your loose corn kernels in a pan along with diced onion, bell pepper, and, optionally, celery, garlic, and/or tomato, then add some stock and simmer. This is traditionally done with bacon grease and chicken stock, but you can also use vegetable broth if preferred.
- Okra. Okra, or ladies’ fingers, pair beautifully with jambalaya when done right. But overcooking them can result in a slimy mess, so if you’re making jambalaya for the first time, then okra might not be worth the additional stress. If you are feeling confident, however, sauté the okra chopped with onions, bell peppers, garlic, tomato, and carrots, or just deep fry them whole by themselves.
- Coleslaw. Coleslaw is a great side dish to prepare not only because it goes so well with jambalaya, but because it’s so easy to make a large batch in advance and serve it with pretty much anything. It’s essentially just thinly chopped raw cabbage and carrots dressed with mayonnaise, although you could also try any number of variants.
- Salads. If the jambalaya already seems substantial enough and you’d rather prepare lighter side dishes just for a bit of balance and variety, you can always stick to a simple salad. Great salads to serve with jambalaya include the classic Caesar salad or a green bean salad with toasted almonds and a simple lemon juice or balsamic vinegar dressing.
Similar Jambalaya Recipe
While chicken might be the classic meat for accompanying shrimp in a jambalaya, chorizo makes a fantastic alternative. We heartily recommend this recipe here, if you want to try making a relatively simple – yet nevertheless delicious – jambalaya recipe at home.