With all the emphasis on cuisines and cooking in America over the past ten years or so, anyone wanting to kick off cocktail conversations only has to mention that the cuisine of (insert region here) puts all others to shame.
Take barbecue for instance. There are fans of the particular styles from Texas, or Kansas City, or Memphis, or the Carolinas. Each one has their supporters, and then there are other barbecue-lovers who can’t stand that style but love the way barbecue is done in another place. Endless discussion.
Now mention regional cuisines, and which one is the very best. Fans of Low Country cuisine will discuss the joy of long-cooking and what that brings to the mix of meats or fish, vegetables and maybe even a few fruits.
High Country Cuisine lovers will go on about the cooking techniques adapted to mountain regions with thinner air, less oxygen and how to not just overcome that condition but also to take advantage.
Folks in northern California are fond of their blend of cultures and using a mixed bag of European influences with Oriental cooking styles and ingredients. Sort of a “hands across the sea” affair.
Well, we are going to emphatically state that, in our humble opinion, no other area of the country can boast two cuisines, distinct and in close proximity that are unique within themselves and offer so much pleasure as we have here in southern Louisiana. The next-door neighbors of Cajun and Creole provide definitive answers to best indigenous cuisine in America.
Creole cuisine is centered in New Orleans and is the result of European influences, notably French and Spanish, intertwined with the Caribbean, and finally perfected with African ingredients and techniques, all usually topped with a rich sauce, likely butter-based.
Cajun cuisine is true down-home style, often done in large pots, using ingredients foraged from the prairie, caught in the waters, or raised on the hoof or the coop. It’s truly “honest” food, spiced to awaken the palate, with no pretension to greatness, but achieving lofty heights nevertheless.
Let’s take just a moment here to settle on the definition of “cuisine.” That may save some confusion and confrontation later.
A cuisine is not only a style of cooking, although that is certainly a part of the equation. And a cuisine is not just one or two ingredients or dishes. Again, that’s a piece of the whole. Also a cuisine operates across a wide spectrum of preparations, sometimes ending up on a plate and at other times in a bowl.
The cuisine of Acadiana in South Louisiana qualifies as a true cuisine on all counts. The ingredients are diverse; the cooking styles varied; and the tastes are incredible. Across the board. Just as important, when you have Cajun cuisine done right, there is no confusing it with any other style of food. “Done right” for Cajun cuisine does not mean overly spiced, or only fried, or boiled for long periods of time. Sadly, when the “Cajun Craze” hit American fast-food emporiums more than ten years ago, all of these techniques were called, erroneously, Cajun.
For fast-food merchants to accommodate American tastes and perceptions, recipes had to be changed, and in order to turn around preparations to satisfy America’s short attention-span, cooking times were shortened. Higher heat, less time between order and service. But lower quality and fewer adherences to the true tenets of Cajun cuisine.
Cajun cuisine, at its richest level, takes full advantage not just of the wide array of natural ingredients available in every corner of Acadiana in southwestern Louisiana, the cuisine’s preparation takes advantage of an unhurried lifestyle where putting a pot of gumbo over low heat or setting a suckling pig over low-fire was the signal to sit back, have a few beers with buddies, and wait for time to work its magic. No rush. No fuss.
The ingredients in Cajun cuisine are varied, interesting, and not used much by other styles, except maybe by the Creoles of New Orleans who share many of the same food sources.
Vegetables include okra, bell peppers, celery, cayenne peppers, collard greens, rice, onions, mirlitons, sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes and squash. Fruits can include strawberries, sugar cane, figs, satsumas (oranges), muscadine and blackberries, along with lemons, limes and pecans.
The meat course would likely include pork, beef, duck, chicken, dove, quail, frog’s legs, and turkey. Seafood includes bass, crawfish, oysters, alligator, catfish, bass, grouper, pompano, drum, flounder, and all varieties of snapper and perch.
Review those lists again and realize that all of those items, and more, are present on the Cajun Prairie of Southwest Louisiana. The Cajun people have always used what is available to them close to home. And they have not only made the most of it, they have excelled at creating dishes that are fresh, tasty and soul-satisfying.
Their cooking styles, as noted above, are slow and deliberate. No need to rush. What’s the hurry? Boiling is reserved almost exclusively for shellfish, like crabs and crawfish. Barbecues are perfect for pork and beef. Grilling is fine for oysters, fish and vegetables.
The Cajuns love stews, hearty one-dish meals where ingredients intermingle with each other. The essence of a vegetable will be found in a shrimp. Cajuns do love fried food, but the touch has to be delicate particularly in seafood. The Cajun-inspired fried turkey has become a national phenomenon, as has injecting the meat with a syringe and needle to get the spice and flavors deep into the product. Turducken – that construction of deboned turkey, duck and chicken (no wings with the last two listed) all in one carcass-style piece – is shipped around the world, but its modern home is Acadiana.
Many Cajun dishes have at their heart what is universally known, at least in this part of the country, as the Holy Trinity. Those ingredients are onions, bell peppers and celery. Start there, or always include these ingredients, and you will have arrived at the center of great Cajun dishes.
Cajuns are experts at making sausage, with andouille and boudin topping the list. Andouille is a pork-sausage, flavored with seasonings and formerly only done in the winter months because the Cajuns really had no way to preserve food except to encase it in salt, of which there is plenty in South Louisiana. Boudin is a soft rice sausage, loaded again with pork and spices. It’s a true gas-station delicacy in South Louisiana with each station vying for bragging rights over their neighbor’s station.
The only thing the Cajun people like better than eating (and drinking) is celebrating eating (and drinking). Festivals staged in honor of all the food items listed here, and more, are held throughout Acadiana every weekend in the Spring and Fall. There are also festivals celebrating cooking styles, like crawfish boils, cochon de lait, etoufee, gumbo, and jambalaya, just to name a few.
Any trip to Acadiana will include delights for the senses, with emphasis on smell and taste. It’s guaranteed.
You can argue about the best “American” cuisines, but, for my money, the argument begins and ends in Acadiana. You cannot ignore the savoriness of the flavors, and the history, present in these foods and preparation techniques.
If you are fortunate as you experience the cuisine, you will get an earful of wonderful information from a Cajun cook. Then you will truly be blessed as you “pass a good time.”
To assist you in planning a trip to Acadiana:
— 30 —