There are three things that must be taken seriously in New Orleans: music, hurricane warnings, and food. Music is an omnipresent religion, hurricanes arrive like clockwork every summer, and what do the citizens of New Orleans do between concerts and the next big storm? They eat! And eat well.
Regardless of social status or ethnicity, New Orleanians have an almost obsessive interest in food, whether it’s a five-course meal or a simple sandwich. And since Katrina, eating has been even more joyful than ever – with parties and celebrations accompanying the re-opening of restaurants and cafés.
A true melting pot of a city in the world’s most diverse nation, the cuisine you’ll find in “Nola” (as New Orleans residents call their city), is a unique, incredible mix of different cultures that have been overlapping and mixing together for generations – and the city itself is blessed with a location that offers abundant treasures from both the farmland and the Gulf waters. The varied influences from New Orleans’ past and present can be tasted in local dishes’ ingredients, flavours, and methods of preparation – and have resulted in a truly original cuisine.
While like any major cosmopolitan city in America, the cuisine in New Orleans is a reflection of all kinds of traditions – from Caribbean dishes to Italian food, to French sauces and Indian spices to British cooking – but there are three main cultural influences that should be considered before any other: Cajun, Creole, and Soul food.
Cajun cooking comes from Louisiana and the Southern states: rustic and flavourful, it’s the cuisine that took shape thanks to the French colonialists from Acadia who were deported from Canadian British Columbia. The dishes are simple and not too elaborate, made from seasonal produce and then slow-cooked. Among the most famous and iconic dishes of the Cajun tradition are gumbo – a stew made from rice, shellfish and the African vegetable okra – and jambalaya, a rather spicy soup with shrimp, rice and beans.
Creole cuisine, on the other hand, follows the urban influence left by the French who lived in the region during colonial times, as well as the succession of immigrants from Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain. Sophisticated and rich with butter, it comes mainly from the traditional cuisine of France that was then adapted to the local ingredients. There’s an abundance of sauces (like the spicy local version of the remoulade, made with paprika and ever-present alongside any dish with shrimp), and great care is given to presentation. Both Cajun and Creole cuisine are based on the Holy Trinity composed of celery, bell peppers and onions, and both kinds of cooking are uniquely indigenous to the state of Louisiana.
The tradition of Soul Food cooking, instead, as the third main type of Nola cuisine, is common in many of the regions in the American South, as it comes from the traditions of the African slaves who worked on the plantations for generations. Simple and filling, it uses ingredients that the unpaid workers could easily access – from the leftover fruits and vegetables to the unwanted parts of livestock, to the herbs and fruits that grew spontaneously in the fields.
But these three influences would be just another culinary tradition in a world full of diverse food if they were in any other place but New Orleans, a city that thrives on daily re-invention. Take, for example, the “po’ boy” sandwich: fatty and greasy – like many of the dishes that became popular among the poorer classes – it remains a popular fast food even in today’s more sedentary and health-conscious culture. It’s the Louisiana version of a submarine sandwich – not made with sliced bread, but a long roll – whose filling may be roast beef or fried fish, with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise or other rich sauces.
The seafood version will come dressed with oil and salt and the best ones can be found in little, obsolete sandwich joints, the ones with barely any signage and bad lighting. If you’re in Nola, don’t hesitate to ask a resident to direct you to an authentic place – people here are proud of their city’s food and are happy to direct visitors to their personal favourites, whatever you’re looking to try. Because here in New Orleans, food really is a religion. No matter that the city itself is steeped in the profane and pagan, a city that has always embraced transgression and “sinful” behavior. But when it comes to food, here, the worst offense is not indulging.