Most online recipes for Cajun dishes suffer from several unfortunate misconceptions. Cajun cooking is, in reality, one of the most flavorful cuisines you’ll ever try! Unfortunately, many people have turned away from it because of certain reputations that it does not deserve. Cajun food history is confused by marketing and myth.
1. Cajun Seasoning Mix Makes a Dish Cajun
So many online recipes for Cajun dishes have “cajun seasoning” on the ingredient list, when, in fact, such seasonings are not traditionally used in the dish. While cayenne, chiles, and black and white pepper are certainly important to Cajun cooking, not all Cajun dishes are so spicy!
Instead of Cajun seasoning, the real royalty in Cajun cooking tends to be the “Holy Trinity” of celery, onion, and bell pepper (sometimes along with garlic). These vegetables, and others such as celery, are more important to Cajun flavors than herbs and spices. The idea that all Cajun food is super hot is simply not true!
A “Cajun McChicken” has absolutely nothing to do with Cajun food. Likewise, liberally sprinkling Cajun seasoning blend on fried potatoes does not make them Cajun Fries.
2. Cajun Food is Always Extremely Hot and Spicy
Although Cajun seasoning blends contain various spices and herbs, including garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, thyme, etc., it is cayenne which has become most identified with Cajun cuisine, and most corporatized versions of Cajun food is simply food liberally doused with powdered Cayenne.
Like with any cook, those Cajun cooks who like more heat will use more cayenne, chiles, black pepper, hot sauce, etc. Hot sauce, by the way, is often used as much for its vinegar component as for the heat it brings. Regardless, Cajun food is not always burn-your-tongue off hot and it is not always over-spiced. A Cajun cook doesn’t want any one flavor to overwhelm the food any more than another cook does. Just as likely as loads of cayenne, chiles, and hot sauce being incorporated into a dish is that cayenne and hot sauce will be sitting on the table, as condiments, for those who want them.
3. Blackening is a Traditional Cajun Cooking Technique
Blackened food, usually fish, is better defined as “food liberally slathered with spices and then burned in a skillet.” Being served a piece of overcooked fish with only a vague sense of cayenne heat and mostly charred taste could easily turn you off of Cajun food. But, not only is this not what blackening is, blackened dishes are not a traditional Cajun way of cooking. This particular method was popularized by celebrity Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme who, during the 1980’s, developed a dish he called blackened redfish. He extended this method to meats as well. Although Prudhomme deserves a lot of the credit for bringing traditional Cajun cooking into the limelight, his method of blackening was a new edition to the Cajun cooking repertoire, and it is not a synonym for ‘burning.’ Instead, he cooked fish at very high temperatures to simulate cooking over a fire and used his own blackening powder to add a well-browned, smoky and flavorful crust. Proper blackening takes browning just about as far as it can go before it becomes burning but, unfortunately, most blackened dishes are not properly done!
It is not blackening that is the native Cajun way of cooking seafood and meat, but boiling! And of course, a roux is the base of many Cajun dishes.
Blackened fish is not the only dish created by Prudhomme that has become identified with traditional Cajun food. He also popularized popcorn crawfish and jalapeno bread, neither of which is traditionally Cajun.
4. New Orleans Cooking is Cajun Cooking
The cooking of New Orleans is more than boiled crawfish and gumbo. It is also more than Cajun. New Orleans cooking is a blend of so many influences it would be difficult to pinpoint them all, but it is more properly called Creole cooking. Creole is a blend of French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, Native American, and even German and Italian influences. Yes, Creole cooking is influenced by Cajun cuisine and you can find Cajun food in New Orleans but don’t go there looking for it. Instead just look to eat some of the best food you’ll ever have.
Red beans and rice, typically associated with Cajun food, is probably more influenced by the the Caribbeans and Central America, by way of the Spaniards (who discovered the beans in the New World, brought them to Spain, and then to America where they turned on the locals to them), and was created by African-American cooks and known as a Monday dish, which used the leftover meat (such as the ham bone) left over from Sunday dinner. This dish, then, is more Creole than Cajun, underscoring the misconception that Cajun seasoning should go into it.
It can be quite difficult to make an accurate distinction between Cajun cooking and Creole cooking, despite the passionate protests of native Louisianans. They share many of the same dishes, the same ingredients, and if any born and bred Southerner walked into a Cajun or a Creole household, they’d likely find food they where familiar with and didn’t identify as uniquely Creole or Cajun, like fried catfish, fried chicken, okra, black-eyed peas, grits, cornbread, and much more.
On the other hand, some foods associated with Cajuns, andouille, boudin sausage, brown jambalaya (sans tomato) and, of course, boiled crawfish, didn’t really find a major foothold until the latter half of the 1900’s. Again, Paul Prudhomme may have helped to forge this connection between New Orleans and Cajun cooking, being the country’s best-known Cajun chef and running a restaurant in New Orleans in the 1980’s couldn’t help but do so. However, if I were to list all the myths about Cajun cooking that Prudhomme may have contributed to, I’d have to dedicate this entire article to him: He was his own cook, not just a Cajun cook, and he also, of course, had Creole influences. Thinking that he was not influenced by Creole cooking and other cuisines is a bit like believing in the myth of Cajun’s existing in a virtual lost world, cut off from outside influence, a ridiculous notion. Therefore, not all of what Prudhomme did was quintessentially Cajun. This leads us to the next misconception.
5. Cajun Food Was Developed in Isolation
Cajun cooking has become perhaps overly identified with New Orleans, causing many to think that Cajun food is food that originates there. Cajun country is, on the other hand, the countryside, and is also called Acadiana. In Louisiana, this region is centered in the southern part of the state, in the Lafayette region, but stretches all the way to Texas, covering Comprising 22 parishes, and starting at the Gulf stretches around 100 miles North.
This region was originally settled by people from Nova Scotia, Canada, who were forced out when it was taken by the British in 1713. Those who refused to play by the British rules, which included renouncing their faith and making oaths of allegiance. They were forced out and some settled in what was to become “Cajun Country” in a region called Atakapa, named after the Native Americans who lived there, West of New Orleans. This area later became known as Acadania, and the descendants of the original settlers are the largest minority of French speakers in the United States. The word ‘cajun’ is just a contraction of Acadian.
Contrary to popular belief, not everyone who now lives in the area is descended from Acadian “Cajun” settlers, and not all of them speak French. As well, some people who are “culturally” Cajun are not descendants of Acadians. Many other people, including Germans, British, Italian, African, Greek, and Spanish, moved into the area and lent their own traditions to the cooking. You can’t help but see some German influence in the sausage, not the least of which is the blood sausage boudin!
However, since so many of the names were changed to sound more French, and their cultures were eventually absorbed and assimilated, it is hard to identify the other influences in Cajun cooking. In fact, many “Cajuns” with French sounding names do not realize their heritage is not, in fact, French!
In Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine, authors Marcelle Beinvenue, Carl Brasseaux, and Ryan Brasseaux go to some trouble to bust the myth that Cajun cooking occurred in a vacuum, and called the cuisine a “cross-cultural borrowing of the diverse ethnic and racial groups that have co-existed in Bayou Country since the late eighteenth century.” Imagining that Cajun food developed on a virtual island is as silly as imagining it was “brought down from Canada.”
Cajun Versus Creole Cooking
One thing is clear: New Orleans cooking has been greatly influenced by its “food scene” and the many outstanding chef’s that have worked there. Cajun-country is not speckled with a lot of white-tablecloth restaurants, and you are just as likely to be ordering at the counter. It is food developed from the standpoint of subsistence living, and the cooking reflects this.
To say that Cajun cuisine was completely isolated and uninfluenced by other Louisiana cooking or Creole cooking is obviously inaccurate. The food would be much more bland if this were the case, and we can perhaps glimpse this in French-Canadian American dishes in places like Maine. Although Cajun food’s reputation for super-hot and spicy is exaggerated, you certainly wouldn’t find such liberal use of chiles and other pungent spices. As well, you wouldn’t expect to see super dark roux and deep-fried anything. The influence of the ingredients available, and of Creole cooking cannot be denied.
The arguments often occur over what dish was borrowed from what cuisine. Both Cajun and Creole traditions, for example, have a jambalaya and gumbo! According to some, jambalaya is a Cajun dish that was borrowed into Creole cooking, where tomatoes were added. Creoles use a lot of tomatoes, Cajun’s don’t. Unless you believe the opposite, that jambalaya is Creole and was borrowed into Cajun cooking. There can be found references to jambalaya being eaten in New Orleans from the late 1800’s. And, in 1885, Lafcardio Hearn published a book called ‘La Cusine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes from Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for Its Cuisine.’ The book featured a recipe for Jambalaya of Fowls and Rice. He stated that it was said to be an Indian dish. The idea that jambalaya is a descendant of Spanish paella, and that the word is a combination of the French word for ham, jambon and paella, seems to be mistaken etymology.
Although the difference between many Cajun and Creole dishes with the same name may be quite obvious to a Cajun or a native Creole eater, ask them to explain it! There is nothing more confusing than being told the difference between a Cajun and a Creole gumbo! Let’s see if we can tease out a few differences, though:
- A Cajun roux tends to be darker than a Creole roux
- Cajun gumbos tend to be more meat and sausage (andouille) based, while Creole gumbos tend to be seafood and sausage based
- Cajun gumbos use filé powder (ground sassafras leaves) more often for thickening than do Creole gumbos, which tend to use okra
There are times when the differences are less clear and there are those who might argue that even these distinctions are not always apparent. Just because native Louisianans cannot explain the difference, however, doesn’t mean they don’t know it when it’s on their plate!
6. Cajun Cooking and Cajuns Have Always Been Accepted in Louisianan
In the past, Cajun cooking was not well-known outside of Acadiana. Although New Orleans was forty years old by the time the Acadians came, their food did little influence New Orleans until the twentieth century. In fact, the word ‘Cajun’ was an ethnic slur. It referred to backwards French speakers who refused to assimilate even long after Louisiana became a state. Louisiana governor and Cajun Edwin Edwards helped to change this, and made the term Cajun acceptable and even a source of pride.
For more reading on the history of Cajun food and the cuisine of New Orleans, see Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine, mentioned above, and New Orleans: A Food Biography by Elizabeth M. Williams