Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Cajun cuisine originates from the French-speaking Acadian or "Cajun" immigrants in Louisiana, USA. It is what could be called a rustic cuisine — locally available ingredients predominate, and preparation is simple. An authentic Cajun meal is usually a three-pot affair, with one pot dedicated to the main dish, one dedicated to steamed rice, skillet cornbread, or some other grain dish, and the third containing whatever vegetable is plentiful or available.
The aromatic vegetables bell-pepper, onion, and celery, called by some chefs the holy trinity of Cajun cuisine, are ubiquitous. Characteristic seasonings include parsley, garlic, bay leaf, "onion tops" or scallions, and cayenne pepper (the dried and powdered form or as one of the locally made pepper sauces such as Tabasco, but rarely fresh!) The overall feel of the cuisine is more Mediterranean than North American.
Cajun cuisine developed out of necessity. The Acadian refugees, farmers rendered destitute by the British expulsion, had to learn to live off the land and adapted their French rustic cuisine to local ingredients such as rice, crawfish, and sugar cane.
In addition to the obvious Canadian and French peasant influences, Cajun cuisine was influenced by African and Native American food cultures. For example, 'gumbo', the name of a family of stews prepared in south Louisiana is a word brought to the region from western Africa. In parts of Africa as well as in standard French and in Caribbean creole languages "gumbo" means okra, which is a principal ingredient in some of the stews called "gumbo". A filé gumbo, on the other hand, contains no okra, is a dark roux based soup or stew, and is seasoned at the table with ground sassafras leaves, a practice borrowed from the Choctaw Indians.
There is a common misconception outside of south Louisiana that Cajun food is hot and spicy. An authentic Cajun dish will usually have a bit of a "kick" but will not be eye-wateringly hot. The Cajun cook does not seek to overpower the dish with simple heat — this is done by the diner at the table if they so wish. Rather, a balance of different pepper flavors is strived for, usually involving a mixture of black, white and cayenne pepper in various ratios. The sensation of these three peppers along the palate is what makes Cajun seasoning unique.
Cajun dishes prepared outside of Louisiana, are often hotter than their Louisiana counterparts, and lack the flavor of the original dishes. Even andouille sausage, mild and smoky in Louisiana, gets the pepper treatment elsewhere. This is partially a result of the "Cajun" foods craze of the 1980s, when Cajun-style seasoning was popularized by chef Paul Prudhomme's creation of the very spicy dish called Blackened Redfish at his New Orleans restaurant "K-Paul's". It is also a result of recent "extreme" food fads, where many items are hotter than the originals.
Outside of southern Louisiana, foods prepared using Cajun-style seasoning are called Cajun, including some decidedly non-Cajun dishes such as red beans and rice, and blackened redfish. Sometimes the label is applied incorrectly to any dish including traditional Cajun ingredients such as cayenne pepper, or merely as a slogan, as in McDonalds's "Spicy Cajun McChicken".
Cajun cuisine is sometimes confused with Creole cuisine, and many outside of Louisiana don't make the distinction. This matter is complicated by the sharing of several dishes between the cuisines, including gumbo, gumbo z'herbes (a vegetarian gumbo), seafood à l'etoufée, and jambalaya, although New Orleans jambalaya is prepared differently than its Cajun counterpart.
Further complicating this is that the term Creole is used to designate several somewhat distinct New Orleans food cultures. So-called 'haute-creole' cuisine was influenced in the past few decades by Cajun food as Creole restaurants such as Commander's Palace, Jacques Imo's, and K-Paul's created a distinct "Cajun-Creole fusion" cuisine combining Cajun flavors with Creole ingredients and preparation. Dishes endemic strictly to the New Orleans metropolitan area such as smothered cabbage, po'-boys, barbecued shrimp, beignets, or red beans and rice are in general Creole, not Cajun, as are pasta dishes like pasta jambalaya, and anything involving a cream sauce or the French mother sauces.
Cajun methods of preparation
Some of these are traditional, and some are recent innovations. Deep-frying of turkey or turducken is included because it has become an Acadian folkway in some limited areas. Blackening of fish or chicken and barbecuing of shrimp in the shell is excluded because it is not, in general, prepared in Acadian homes or Acadian restaurants.
- Boiling, as in boiling of crawfish, shrimp, or other crustacean, in seasoned liquid.
- Deep frying of whole turkeys outdoors in a large pot. The same pot and burner rig is also used for crawfish or shrimp boils. Note: Underwriters Laboratories have warned that this technique can be dangerous. Some safety precautions can be found at .
- Etoufée (cooking a vegetable or meat in its own juices, similar to braising or what in New Orleans is called "smothering")
- Barbecueing - Very similar to "slow and low" Texas barbecue traditions, but with Cajun seasoning
- Injecting - Using a large syringe type setup to place seasoning deep inside large cuts of meat.
Cajun or Cajun-influenced chefs
The following is a partial list of ingredients used in Cajun cuisine and some of the staple ingredients of the Acadian food culture.
Fruits and vegetables
- Onion Tops (better known as scallions)
- Mirlitons (also called vegetable pears or chayote)
- Sweet potatoes
- Bell Peppers
- Satsuma Oranges
- Cayenne Peppers
- Strawberries (especially around Ponchatoula)
Meat and seafood
Acadian folkways include many ways of preserving meat, some of which are waning due to the availability of refrigeration and mass-produced meat at the grocer. Smoking of meats remains a fairly common practice, but once-common preparations such as turkey or duck confit (preserved in poultry fat, with spices) are now seen even by Acadians as quaint rarities.
The traditional pig-slaughtering party, or 'boucherie', where people would gather to socialize, play music, dance, and preserve meat does still occur in some rural communities, but the exploitation of every last bit of meat, including organs and variety cuts in sausages such as 'boudin' and the inaccessible bits in the head as head cheese is no longer a necessity.
Game (and hunting) are still uniformly popular in Acadiana.
The recent increase of catfish farming in the Mississippi Delta has brought about an increase in its usage in Cajun cuisine in the place of the more traditional wild-caught trout and redfish.
- Saltwater or brackish water species
Also included in the seafood mix are some so-called "trash fish" that would not sell at market because of their high bone to meat ratio or required complicated cooking methods. These were brought home by fishermen to feed the family. Examples are garfish, gaspergou, croaker, and bream.
- Farm Raised
- Game birds
- Pork Sausages and products
- Andouille - a spicy dry smoked sausage
- Boudin - a fresh sausage made with green onions, pork, and rice. Pig's blood is sometimes added to produce "boudin noir".
- Fresh pork sausage - not smoked or cured, but highly seasoned. Mostly used in gumbos. The sausage itself does not include rice, separating it from boudin.
- Chaurice, similar to the Spanish chorizo
- Tasso - a highly seasoned, smoked pork shoulder
- Head cheese
Beef and dairy
Though parts of Acadiana are well suited to cattle or dairy farming, beef is not often used in a pre-processed or uniquely Cajun form. It is usually prepared fairly simply as chops, stews, or steaks, taking a cue from Texas to the west. Ground beef is used as is traditional throughout the southern US, although seasoned differently.
Dairy farming is not as prevalent as in the past, but there are still some farms in the business. There are no unique dairy items prepared in Cajun cuisine. Traditional southern US and New Orleans influenced desserts are common.
"Cajun spice" blends such as Tony Chachere's are sometimes used in Acadian kitchens, but they tend to be avoided because they do not suit the cook's style, and because Cajun-style seasoning is simply achieved from scratch, even by taste. Seafood boils such as Zatarain's Shrimp and Crab Boil are, on the other hand, in common use. Whole peppers are almost never used in authentic Cajun dishes--ground Cayenne, paprika, and pepper sauces predominate.
- Sugar cane
- Cane syrup
- Dark roux: The Acadians inherited the roux from the French. However, unlike the French, it is made with oil or bacon fat, and not butter, and it is used a flavoring, especially in gumbo and etoufée. Preparation of a dark roux is probably the most involved or complicated procedure in Cajun cuisine, involving heating fat and flour very carefully, constantly stirring for about 15-45 minutes (depending on the color of the desired product), until the mixture has darkened in color and developed a nutty flavor. A burnt roux renders a dish unpalatable.
- Stocks: Acadian stocks are more heavily seasoned than Continental counterparts, and the shellfish stock sometimes made with shrimp and crawfish heads is unique to Cajun cuisine.
- Fish stock and Courtboullion
- Shellfish stock
- Chicken stock
Characteristic Cajun dishes
- Potato Salad, almost always served with gumbo, and usually in it
- Gumbo z'Herbes
- Cush-cush (Cajun corn mush)
- Boiled crawfish
- Maque Choux (corn based stew, sometimes with crawfish or chicken)
- Boudin (Rice and pork sausage)
- Tasso (spicy smoked pork)
- Catfish Courtboullion (or Redfish)
- Crawfish etoufée
- Hogs Head Cheese
- Shrimp or Alligator Sauce Piquante
- Cochon de Lait (roast suckling pig, similar to Barbecue)
- Skillet cornbread
- Crawfish pie
- Andouille sausage
- Dirty rice, or "rice dressing"
- Rice and Gravy - usually a brown gravy based on pan drippings, which are deglazed and simmered with extra seasonings and served over steamed or boiled rice.
- Fried Frog Legs
This is a listing of dishes sometimes mistakenly called or thought to be Cajun but having origins elsewhere, usually in New Orleans or in northern Louisiana, and sometimes are relatively unadopted in Acadiana:
- Deep Fried Turkey
- "French bread" as found in grocery stores
- Oysters Rockefeller or Casino
- Red beans and rice
- Smothered Cabbage
- Chicken and Dumplings
- Bread pudding
- Bananas Foster
- Tomato gravy (a North Louisiana specialty)
- Popeye's Fried Chicken (a US chain originally based in New Orleans)
- Blackened anything
- Cajun fries
- Spicy Cajun McChicken
- Cajun sausage (other than those listed above)
- Pralines , which have Belgian roots, although there are Cajun variations of pralines
- Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen (ISBN 0688028470), from the main popularizer of Cajun flavors, this is the definitive "high" Cajun cookbook. Most of the recipes within are very traditional, with a world class chef's added touch.
- Chef John Folse 's Plantation Celebrations (ISBN 0962515221), a well-regarded cookbook from one of the great Cajun chefs.
- Louisiana Real and Rustic (ISBN 0688127215) by Emeril Lagasse with Marcelle Bienvenu . Despite Emeril's association with the Cajun/Creole fusion movement, this collaboration with Times-Picayune food writer Bienvenu is a bona fide and authentic look at the food folkways of Louisiana, with much focus on rural Acadiana. Marcelle Bienvenue is a native of Abbeville, Louisiana, in Vermilion Parish.
- Cajun Cuisine: Authentic Cajun Recipes from Louisiana's Bayou Country (ISBN 0935619003) by W. Thomas Angers .
- RealCajunRecipes.com, a site created by three Cajuns born and raised in Acadiana. It is devoted to building the largest and most accurate collection of Cajun recipes handed down from one Cajun cook to another. It includes a photo album and a Cajun blog.
- The Creole and Cajun Recipe Page, written by a native New Orleanian, includes some Cajun recipes and a few pages explaining the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine and between Cajun cuisine and what unscrupulous restauranteurs try pass off as Cajun.
Seasonal food festivals, centering around the ingredients and game that are part of South Louisiana cooking, are a huge part of South Louisiana culinary culture. Some of the more popular ones are:
- Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival - Breaux Bridge, Louisiana
- Festival of the Bonfires - Lutcher, Louisiana
- Frog Festival - Rayne, Louisiana
- Jambalaya Festival - Gonzales, Louisiana
- Gueydan Duck Festival - Gueydan, Louisiana
- Lecompte Pie Festival - Lecompte, Louisiana
- Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival - Morgan City, Louisiana
- Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival - New Iberia, Louisiana
- Pontchatoula Strawberry Festival - Pontchatoula, Louisiana
- Cochon de Lait Festival - Mansura, Louisiana
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