Southern Fried Gothic, Louisiana Edition: Creole vs. Cajun

I’m over at Paranormal Unbound today, doing the “What We’re Reading” feature, and what I’m reading is a new book by Michael Murphy called Eat eat datDat, New Orleans: A Guide to the Unique Food Culture of the Crescent City. It’s fun to go through and read some of the legends and stories associated with what I think is the greatest food city in the country. Yeah, I’m prejudiced, but a lot of chefs agree with me (most recently, Mario Batali).

Anyway, it seemed a good jumping-off place for a new blog feature I’m calling “Southern Fried Gothic.” It won’t be about food, don’t worry. It’s about Louisiana and the South, two areas I know well. Note I say those are two areas. Why Louisiana is not the South is a topic for another day.

Today, I thought I’d talk about something I see a lot of authors get wrong when they’re writing about New Orleans or Louisiana: Creole food and Cajun food. These terms are not interchangeable. Gumbo? It’s Creole. Boudin? It’s Cajun. It gets even more confusing when restaurants mix the cuisines and call them one or the other.

The different lies in the origins of the cuisines, and in the base ingredients. Think of them as the city mouse and the country mouse.

Creole cuisine is the city mouse. It came about when a lot of expatriate French chefs left the homeland for La Louisiane and brought their cuisine with them to the French colony. Once in Nouvelle Orleans, their food adapted to local ingredients and got mixed in with the recipes brought in by the large numbers of free people of color from the West Indies that populated the city. The result was a French-African-Caribbean cuisine that became Creole.

Popular modern dishes with Creole origins include gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish or shrimp etouffee, maque choux, remoulade, and turtle soup. These dishes are very savory, generally not too spicy, and often feature tomatoes or okra.

The word “Cajun” is a shorthand mispronunciation of “Acadian.” This was the cuisine of the country mouse—the French Acadians driven out of the Canadian maritime provinces in the “Grand Derangement” when they refused to pledge loyalty to the British. They settled in the swampy areas of south-central Louisiana, and were very much people who lived off the land. Being poorer than your average city mouse, they also figured out ways to stretch the food they had.

Less expensive cuts of meat and organ meats were ground up and mixed with rice to make boudin. Less tasty foods were highly seasoned—it’s in the Cajun dishes where you’ll find the legendary hot, spicy foods. You’ll find the “holy trinity” of Cajun cooking—onions, celery, and bell pepper—but you won’t see tomatoes or okra.  Cayenne pepper? Yeah, baby.

From Cajun food came modern favorites like boudin, tasso, Andouille, all kinds of smoked fish and seafood like crawfish, boiled in a spicy mixture with potatoes and vegetables.

What about red beans and rice? Originally, it was a Creole dish. It was usually served on Mondays, when New Orleans households usually did laundry. Leftover ham from Sunday dinner was thrown in a pot of beans to cook all day. Even now, a lot of restaurants have red beans as their Monday special. Modern iterations take a nice Cajun Andouille (smoked sausage) and cook it with the Creole red beans for a blended version. Louis Armstrong was a big fan of red beans and rice and often signed letters, “red beans and ricely yours, Louis Armstrong.”

So I have to leave you with a recipe, right? Here’s my combined-cuisine version of red beans. C’est si bon! Leave a comment to win a copy of Eat Dat (it makes a good read even if you don’t like Creole or Cajun food).


 Rinse 1 pound of kidney beans and soak overnight. Then rinse and drain.

 In a skillet, heat oil (I like peanut but you can use any kind) and sautee 1 RedBeansandRicelarge chopped onion, 1 chopped bell pepper, 2 stalks of celery, chopped, and a crushed clove of garlic. Add 6 cups of water, the beans, and add 1 Tbsp Crystal Hot Sauce or other pepper sauce, 1/2 teaspoon sage, 1 Tbsp of Cajun seasoning (I use Louisiana brand, but Tony Chachere’s or even McCormick will work). Cook on low simmer for 2-3 hours. Stir in 1 pound chopped andouille (can substitute kielbasa or any smoked sausage) and simmer another half hour. Serve over white rice.

If you eat mostly low carb or slow carb, you can ditch the rice; I usually do. I like spicy, so if you aren’t sure, half the hot sauce and Cajun seasoning until it’s done and then add more if you want to increase the heat. This also works well in a slow cooker. Just throw everything in but the rice and forget it for six or seven hours.

Enjoy! Leave a comment to win a copy of Eat Dat. Have you tried any of the dishes mentioned in this blog post? Would you like to?


34 thoughts on “Southern Fried Gothic, Louisiana Edition: Creole vs. Cajun

  1. OMG! I’m drooling 🙂 We have a place here called “Hebert’s Specialty Meats” that carries a lot of items from Louisiana. You can even get turducken there, as well as beignet mix,etc. Every year they put on Crawfest. Yummy!!!

    • It’s got to be authentic with a name like Hebert! Turducken is so bizarre to me. I’ve only had it twice and it was good but strange. For the turducken neophytes, it’s a chicken deboned and stuffed inside a duck, which is deboned and stuffed inside a turkey, then all roasted together. Turducken!

  2. Thanks for the recipe. My husband loves red beans and rice! Since I don’t tolerate spicy very well, I guess Creole foods a better choice for me. I enjoyed the explanation of the differences.

    • I have a pretty low tolerance for jalapenos, although I like them. Forget the hotter ones like habaneros. Pepper sauce, though…I’m there. I think it was on the other blog I was talking about how New Orleanians are split between Tabasco and Crystal hot sauces–you have to choose sides–and I like the taste of Crystal better. I put it on everything. (Great on scrambled eggs!)

  3. I have lived in south Louisiana most of my life and have never known the difference. Thanks for the clarifications. I am going to make my kids read this article so they will know the difference also.

    • The two cuisines are so jumbled up now it’s hard to tell the difference! I read an interview with Jacques Leonardi recently talking about taking the best of both cuisines and mixing them up. It might be why I like his restaurant so much 🙂

  4. We ate cajun food at Mulate’s in NOLA and danced it off when we last visited (before Katrina, we don’t get out much). My husband loved it but I prefer creole food. We could both sit on the square at the Cafe and eat beignets all morning!

  5. Oh! Being a native of Chicago, I’ve only visited New Orleans twice–each time I relished it. And I over indulged at the Court of Two Sisters…
    As for trying the recipes? I got a great jambalaya recipe from the Tabasco folks and I use it often. I also make gumbo from scratch, even making my own roué and adding file powder and andouille that I can pick up at ethnic markets. We almost never have leftovers on gumbo night…

    My oldest son is such a fan of the cuisine, he gets a Tabasco gift every year in his Christmas stocking. Sometimes the sauces, sometimes funny boxer shorts. Two years ago I got those Tabasco flavored jelly belly’s. He cracked up.

    • Ha–I love that! Tabasco has a cool store in the French Quarter with all kinds of merchandise. If you ever have a chance to visit Avery Island, where the company is located, they have a tour and a store that has, among other things, Tabasco ice cream!

  6. Yum! My husband and I are taking our daughter to New Orleans NEXT WEEK and there’s so much I want to do and see (and eat!) while we’re there!
    *pardon me while I squee with excitement*

    • JEALOUS! I’ll be there in early April and again in mid-May (for RT) and can’t wait. Go to Jacques-Imo’s if you get a chance. It’s not crazily expensive and is a pretty inexpensive cab ride if you’re staying in the Quarter. It’s on Oak Street in the Riverbend area.

      • Cool! Thanks for the recommendation. So far I’ve left most of the planning to my husband (who has never been to NO but has watched every episode of Treme at least twice),but I’ll make sure Jacques-Imo’s makes our list.

  7. I’m heading to NOLA next month and now I will know a little bit more when I am ordering meals. Before, I just knew everything would be DELICIOUS.

  8. Funny, I was just reading about this book this morning. It must be fate that makes you want to give me a copy.
    Seriously, you desire to send me a copy, yes you do.
    I haven’t had a lot of NOLA food but you did mention smoked fish and I love every kind of that that I’ve ever tried.
    Thanks for the deeper look into Chef Murphy’s book, did I mention I’d like to win it?

  9. Very interesting post! I didn’t know the difference between Creole and Cajun food and I enjoyed reading about their origin. My husband and I love spicy food, so I would like to try some real Cajun recipes. I am glad this will be a weekly feature.

  10. Oh I love this new blog feature!! My husband and I are huge fans of both Creole and Cajun food – he puts andouille in everything, and I put cayenne in everything. Thanks for the book reference, can’t want to check it out. 🙂

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