Cajun food provides memorable visit

NEW ORLEANS — Everywhere you travel in the United States, there is bound to be some type of food for which that place is famous.

A Philadelphian myself, I grew up on cheesesteaks and soft pretzels, and over the years I have acquired a taste for Georgia peaches, Texas barbecue and Maryland crab cakes, just to name a few popular regional delicacies.

Despite two decades of eating and traveling, I had never, until recently, actually enjoyed the tastes of New Orleans, affectionately known as the Big Easy.

Click on the video at right to view a slide show about New Orleans’ Cajun food photographed and narrated by writer Jon Moss.

In a city such as New Orleans, where the incredible music and even better bar scene can captivate even the most puritan of tourists, the Crescent City’s cuisine is as much a part of the city’s lure as anything else.

“I’ve been coming down to New Orleans for 30 years now, and I still get excited about eating here,” said Jan Bissell, a Pensacola, Fla., native who made the trip with her friends to celebrate Easter. “We all love the Cajun food and the way every place serves the same dishes but they all taste differently.”

The Cajun food that Bissell so admirably speaks of is New Orleans’ chief culinary contribution, and can be found in some capacity at almost every restaurant in the city.

No Cajun menu is complete without a hefty selection of fried foods. These pickles, found at the Creole Skillet, are a delicious Southern delicacy (Photo by Jon Moss).

But what exactly is “Cajun” food?

After spending four full days immersing myself with the Acadian cuisine—the term ‘Cajun’ is a shortened form of Acadian, and represents the French-speaking people exiled to Louisiana from Canada—I have been able to drum up a few basic rules that should help anyone familiarize themselves with the traditional New Orleans regional menu.

Rule #1: Rice is nice. Almost every traditional Cajun meal will have, in some capacity, rice. The rice will almost always be steamed and seasoned with myriad flavors sure to make you forget that you’re eating one of the world’s most boring foods.

If rice is so boring, though, then why is it such a prominent part of this colorful a food group?

“Everything’s got rice in it because that’s what there’s a lot of down here,” said Henry Doherty, a waiter at the famous Mulate’s Restaurant in New Orleans’ warehouse district. “We use rice in everything, especially when it’s mixed in with pork to make sausage.”

The sausage of which Doherty speaks is the wildly popular boudin variety, which has to consist of pork and rice, with the rest of the ingredients left to the chef.

“Boudin sausage is probably one of New Orleans’ most popular dishes, because that’s the meat that people know about when they come down here,” said Doherty.

Well, I would have to admit that Doherty is correct. When I asked Doherty what, as a meat lover, I should order, he did not hesitate to recommend the boudin sausage. It was cooked and flavored so well that I forgot I was eating my second rice-based dish of the day.

If the boudin sausage was my second rice-based dish, I’m sure you were wondering about the first one. Well, glad you asked.

Having never been to New Orleans prior to this trip, there were very few foods that I had even heard of, let alone known what they were. One of them was jambalaya, a dish so popular that even a Bayou virgin like me knew to order it immediately.

Located in the French Quarter, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville provides a mix of local options and more common food and beverage choices (Photo by Jon Moss).

“Jambalaya’s got meat, vegetables, and rice in it, and it’s more about just tasting it and going with it than trying to figure out exactly how it’s prepared,” said Bissell, who estimates that she has had “definitely over a hundred” different jambalayas over the years.

Cajun restaurants serve dishes with a side of jambalaya with the same frequency that your grandmother served dinner with a side of mashed potatoes, and for good reason. Since it can be made with anything, it can go well with anything.

Rule #2: If it’s fried, it should be tried. From frog legs to catfish to sausage to pickles, many a Cajun recipe calls for the frying of something not commonly associated with being fried.

“We’re in New Orleans so we can fry almost anything. And we do,” said Dennis Higgs, a chef at the Creole Skillet restaurant, also in the warehouse district.

With an authoritative tone like that, when he told me to try anything fried, I knew I couldn’t resist. I settled on something called “Cajun fried pickles,” which I deemed most enticing based upon my love for pickles and anything fried. I was not disappointed.

After looking at me with a told-you-so smirk, Higgs, not normally a pickle fan, let me in on a little Cajun cuisine secret.

“Sometimes, you get food that just isn’t good, like pickles or catfish,” he said. “But when you fry it, it becomes good again, because now it’s fried pickles or fried catfish. Who doesn’t like fried stuff?”

While every Cajun restaurant may have its own time-tested recipe for fried entrees, the basic concept of frying is universal—which is not a bad thing at all.

The basic premise behind many fried dishes—that a particular fish, meat or vegetable was abundant yet not overly tasty, so the bad taste was “fried out” and replaced with sauces and seasonings—is the same, and if it’s been successful for hundreds of years then I see no reason to go against it.

Rule #3: It’s “soup-er” good. Asking a Louisianan to describe what ingredients make up their famous gumbo would be akin to asking an average person to draw what they think an alien looks like. There is no right answer, and there is no wrong answer, and everybody does it differently.

“Gumbo is our version of soup,” said Philip Sevin, a bartender/waiter/frequent customer at Mulate’s. Born in New Orleans, Sevin has always made his home in Cajun country, and currently lives in Slidell, a Crescent City suburb.

Mulate’s catfish platter is one example of the many seafood options on every Cajun restaurant menu (Photo by Jon Moss).

Naturally, Sevin has seen his share of gumbos.

“I’ve seen gumbos with everything imaginable in it,” said Sevin. “I’d definitely use gator meat, but you can do shrimp, catfish, or any kind of seafood. Or you don’t have to use seafood at all.”

Sevin’s idea that you can add a variety of seafood into gumbo manifests itself on Mulate’s menu, which advertises a seafood gumbo not with a particular fish but rather a “variety of seafood.”

Regardless of what goes in the bowl, it is easy to tell authentic gumbo from its impostors. The most telling sign is whether the okra is involved.

While not overly different from many other plants, okra has historically been gumbo’s chief thickening agent, and it gets its name from the African okingumbo plant. Broken apart, okingumbo becomes “okra” and “gumbo,” meaning the two make a natural pair.

True Cajun restaurants, such as the Gumbo Shop, know that the key to making authentic gumbo is the inclusion of okra in the recipe (Photo courtesy of the Gumbo Shop).

In short, if your gumbo doesn’t have okra, then it might still be good, but it’s not really Cajun. And in the end, isn’t that what we’re all trying to experience?

Rule #4: Nothing is off-limits; just don’t ask what it is. Cajun people will cook and eat anything. And in a culture used to making the most out of its resources, that means Cajuns will cook, barbecue or deep fry any and all usable parts of the plant or animal.

“You don’t want to eat something called ‘pig stomach,’ do you?” asked Higgs, when prompted to elaborate on certain dishes’ names. “But if I tell you that you’re getting ‘freshly seasoned chaudin, served with jambalaya’ now that’s a good-looking dish.”

Sure beats “pig stomach with a side of rice.”

Chaudin, as you may have guessed, is a Cajun term for pig stomach. While Americans are well-versed in these culinary cover-ups—who among us hasn’t eaten fried squid and bull testicles described as calamari and mountain oysters—Cajun country, with its abundance of flavors, meats, and love of curiosity, really puts the “don’t ask, don’t tell” theory to work.

Now if only they could come up with a colorful name for catfish.

I hope you have enjoyed my journey through the Cajun cooking scene, and here’s hoping you may have actually gotten something out of it.

Just remember, next time you visit New Orleans, expect to eat a lot of delectable dishes that you probably won’t be able to replicate anywhere else.

“New Orleans’ Cajun food is great, but it’s awful when I try and make it at home,” Bissell admitted.

Once you leave New Orleans, you might not remember exactly what went into your meal, but you certainly won’t be able to forget it.

Recommended Cajun restaurants:

201 Julia St., New Orleans (Warehouse District)
(504) 522-1492
Jon recommends: Crawfish etouffeé; Catfish Mulate’s

The Creole Skillet
200 Julia St., New Orleans (Warehouse District)
(504) 304-6318
Jon recommends: Creole Skillet rib-eye; Fried pickles

Gumbo Shop
630 Saint Peter St., New Orleans (French Quarter)
(504) 267-2081
Jon recommends: Seafood okra gumbo; Shrimp Creole

309 Bourbon St., New Orleans (French Quarter)
(504) 523-0377
Jon recommends: Smoked boudin; Remoulade burger

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