One of the most distinctive of American foods is probably the rich menu of Cajun cooking. While it is based on the cuisine of countries of origin of immigrants to Louisiana (France and Spain above all), you’d be hard-pressed to find any food that is not. And of all the regional cuisines of North America, none is quite as distinct, and region-specific, as Cajun food. Gumbo, Po’ Boys, boudin, and crawfish étouffée have their decided charms, but the king of Cajun dishes is the rice concoction known as jambalaya. So when I was craving something Cajun, I decided to fire up some jambalaya.
The term “Cajun” is slang for Acadian, the term for the francophone immigrants who found a home in Louisiana prior to the famous “Louisiana Purchase,” when the vast French colonial territory was acquired by the United States. These immigrants had first moved from France to Acadia, in eastern Canada. But when the British took over around 1755, they were forced out and sent south, in what was called the Grand Derangement (which we could perhaps translate as “Great Disruption”). Most of them ended up in southern Louisiana, where they have remained ever since, living in a pocket of disassociated culture, with their own language, dialect, music style, cultures and, of course, cuisine.
Like so much of the best food, Cajun recipes began from necessity—the food of the poor, who made small amounts of protein go as far as possible, like slow-cooking inexpensive cuts of meat and making them into a gravy to add taste to inexpensive, filling starches like rice (give me traditional poor man’s food over the effete historical dishes of the wealthy any day). It was only in the late 20th that Cajun food grew popular, originally thanks to the renown, charm, and charisma of chef Paul Prudhomme, and later, through the television celebrity of Emeril Lagasse. We should also distinguish between Cajun and Creole cuisines. There is much overlap, but Cajun (Acadian) cooking emerged largely from traditional, rural Provenal French cuisine, while Creole was the realm of the wealthier classes in Louisiana who borrowed ideas from the down-home Cajun fare and made it their own. Creole is more associated with the city-folk of New Orleans, while Cajun is the food of the countryside and backwoods of Louisiana.
So my first job is to decide which of the two main styles of jambalaya I plan to prepare: Creole or Cajun? Both are rice dishes piled with spices, meat, vegetables and fish. They have origins in European rice dishes, the most prominent being paella. Both feature what is sometimes referred to as the “trinity” of Cajun cooking: 50% onions, 25% celery and 25% peppers, which provide the vegetable core of so many dishes from this region. Creole jambalaya, also called “red jambalaya,” has tomatoes, whereas Cajun does not. In both dishes meat (usually chicken and sausage) is browned in a cast-iron, Le Creuset-style pot, with bits of meat encouraged to stick to the bottom of the pot. The meat is removed and the vegetable trifecta is then added, softened, and then braised with the re-inserted meat and spices, with the addition of seafood (usually shrimp, sometimes crawfish). This mixture simmers for at least an hour, but in practice the longer you simmer, the more flavorful your brew.
A key trick to infuse the dish with flavor is to bring this stock, meat, seafood and vegetable mixture to a bowl and then throw the rice straight into the pot. Cooking long-grain rice with stock, instead of just water, jolts up the flavor (the basis for risotto, for instance), and that is enhanced by its proximity to the solid ingredients. The rice cooks for at least thirty minutes along with all the other goodies, and then you’re ready to eat. Gumbo and étouffée are both similar dishes, but the rice is cooked separated and acts as a side starch (or an under-starch, as it is often a bed on which the meat, seafood and vegetables rests), whereas jambalaya is a true mixture of rice with all the other ingredients.
I opted for the Creole variety, as a fan of tomatoes and finding them ripe and in season. The toughest thing for me to find was the seasoning, which in the US one can buy pre-mixed, but in the European Alps, I had to be more creative. I broke it down into percentages and produced my own “Creole Seasoning,” based on a recipe provided by Emeril Lagasse for one of his Food Network programs. I threw together smoked paprika, salt, black pepper, onion and garlic powders, cayenne pepper, thyme and oregano, and I was good to go. Add a hot sauce of choice, and I had a pot of Louisiana on my Slovenian stove.