Just last week I was telling a good friend that I had plans to make a shrimp and okra gumbo for the weekend. Without hesitation, she asked, “Cajun gumbo or Creole gumbo?” Oh, here I go again. After a 10-minute explanation, I could see my friend regretted even asking the question. But, it is a difficult subject, and one that has engaged the highest level of scholarly study. If you have a bit shy of ten minutes, pour another cup of coffee and hear me out.
So what is the difference between Cajun cooking and Creole cooking? For a Louisiana food writer covering Cajun and Creole cooking, that’s akin to asking, “what’s in a gumbo?” There is no clear answer, and that is the beauty of the culture and cuisine. At the risk of becoming embroiled in culinary controversy, let me shed some light on this long and sometimes heated debate.
The difference between the two is most easily explained by looking at the two cultures and their geography. Europeans of wealth and stature settled in the city of New Orleans and brought with them a palate for more gentrified cuisine reminiscent of their French, Spanish or English roots. Over time, servants and cooks of African descent learned these sophisticated recipes and techniques and blended them with their spicy, herb-infused cooking. Before long, tastes mingled into a soulful mix that became the defining taste of Creole. Cooking with tomatoes, cream, butter, cheeses and other more refined ingredients led to the rich cuisine for which New Orleans has become famous. French sauce techniques helped define dishes like shrimp remoulade, trout meunière, oysters Bienville, crabmeat ravigote and so many other great Creole dishes. And those classic European dishes were joined by down home Creole foods like gumbo z’herbes, smoky red beans and rice, dishes spiked with okra, as well as a tomato-infused version of jambalaya.
Meanwhile, in the marshes of southwest Louisiana a different sort of culinary evolution was taking place. In 1755, the expulsion of the French Acadians from Nova Scotia by the British resulted in the migration of thousands of families to the wetlands of southern Louisiana. All along the Gulf coast and northward into the prairie region of Acadiana, settlers put down roots. These were not people of wealth, but simple farming families. To survive, they trapped, fished and hunted for food, and applied their basic rural French culinary skills to simple Cajun recipes that fit their palate. Settlers along the coastal parishes made their livelihood by shrimping, crabbing and harvesting oysters; further inland, farming the flatlands with sugarcane and rice as predominant crops led to Cajun recipes using all of these indigenous ingredients. The Atchafalaya Basin was a wild source for crawfish, and eventually the rice fields were flooded after the harvest for farming crawfish in a controlled aquaculture environment. Over time, the Germans settled into the region north of Lafayette and brought with them sausage-making and smokehouse skills that blended beautifully into the gumbo of flavors we now know as Cajun cooking.
Family plays an important part in Cajun foodways. Even today, celebrations erupt whenever families come together to cook a whole hog. The boucherie and the cochon de lait are French traditions that are important to the Cajun way of life. Even crawfish boils are family celebrations that bring people together over food. Food is a key ingredient of the joie de vivre of living in South Louisiana.
I’ve heard Cajun food described as a basic and unrefined method of rustic, rural, farm cooking. I disagree. To me, that description shortchanges the talent and taste of the culinary art of the French Acadians. I believe the evolution of this distinctly original cuisine is based on artisan techniques handed down for generations and preserved as a cultural treasure. Pride and passion for Cajun cooking are as much defining elements of the people as the music, dance and language. Deep, dark gumbos, spicy tasso, rich crawfish étouffée and black-iron pot rice and gravy are original Cajun recipes steeped in historical reverence for a culture that endures.
But, the explanation doesn’t end there.
I contend that over time Cajun and Creole cuisines have converged into a unique, cross-cultural cuisine that is represented throughout Louisiana. The holy trinity of spices–onion, bell pepper, and celery–is the divine starting point of both cuisines. Okra appears often in gumbos on both sides of the Atchafalaya Basin, and a bowl of creamy red beans with smoked andouille is a link that deliciously bridges the two cultures. The beauty of eating in Louisiana is the blending of flavors into unexpected and surprisingly unique dishes.
Let the debate end. What’s the true Louisiana cuisine? Who cares? The blurring of the lines of distinction of these two cultures has resulted in a truly original, one-of-a-kind cuisine. To celebrate and illustrate this union, I offer up a steaming hot bowl of shrimp and okra gumbo.
One bite and you will clearly understand.
- ¼ cup canola oil
- 2 cups diced yellow onions
- 2 cups diced green bell pepper
- 2 cups diced celery
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- ½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 cup chopped tasso or smoked ham
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 12 cups shrimp stock or seafood stock, plus water if needed
- 1 cup dried shrimp
- 2 cups sliced okra
- 1 ½ cups dark roux, such as Rox's Roux
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 pounds fresh large Louisiana shrimp
- Dash of hot sauce
- 8 cups cooked Louisiana long-grain white rice, for serving, such as Supreme
- 1 cup diced green onion tops
- Filé powder
- In a large cast-iron pot over medium heat, add ¼ cup of canola oil. Once sizzling hot, add the onions, bell peppers, and celery. Sauté until the onions turn translucent. Add the garlic, parsley, and tasso, and sauté until combined. Add the tomato paste and stir to combine.
- Add the shrimp stock along with the dried shrimp. Add the sliced okra. Bring to a boil and add the roux. Lower the heat to a simmer and season with cayenne pepper. Cover the pot and let cook for 1 hour.
- After 1 hour, lift the lid and skim the surface of any excess oil. Taste the gumbo. If you prefer your gumbo thinner, add more stock or water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the shrimp, cover the pot and simmer for 20 minutes more. Turn off the heat.
- Uncover the pot and skim the surface of any excess oil. Sample the finished gumbo and season with hot sauce to taste.
- Ladle the gumbo into large bowls over a mound of rice and garnish with diced green onion tops. Have filé powder and hot sauce on the table for adding. Serve with hot French bread.
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