Most people aren’t familiar with Cajun food these days and that’s too bad. Cajun food should enjoy the recognition it deserves. Not only is this the only cuisine that’s distinctly American, but it could be one of the world’s classic cuisines. Before I give you the descriptions, let me give you a little history.
The Cajuns were originally French Canadians who lived in a part of Nova Scotia they named Acadia. When the British officially took control of the region, they demanded the French swear loyalty to the queen.The people of Acadia wouldn’t do so and were unceremoniously driven off their land and out of the country. Some Acadians returned to France, some migrated to the Caribbean. The rest arrived in the French colony of Louisiana.
The Spanish who had just acquired Louisiana from France granted the Acadians land chiefly around the atchafalaya basin. Here the Acadians learned to raise cattle, corn and rice as well as to harvest the bounty of the swamps and bayous. Life was difficult for the French settlers. Meals were cooked in one pot contrary to French traditions. Settlers also began hunting for wild game. Meals included everything from crawfish to wild turkey and alligator.
Over the years many cultures have added their influence to Cajun food. The Spanish borough to Louisiana their love of heat, rice and beans. The Spanish also used tomatoes in their cooking. The Germans brought their knowledge of charcuterie, leading to many forms of sausage and boudin. The Irish, Italians and African slaves also added their influences to the cuisine with their traditional ingredients and cooking styles.
Today, we have a cuisine that’s hard to quantify. There are so many factors that add up to describe Cajun food. Before I start, though, let me dispel a myth. Cajun food does not automatically equal spicy. Cajun food is well seasoned, using a variety of herbs and seasonings to flavor a dish. This, combined with unique cooking methods add up to a dish that is flavorful, often with a bit of warmth at the back of your throat. If you’re eating Cajun food and you burn your tongue off, somethings wrong.
Above all, Cajun cuisine is frugal. Nothing gets wasted. When a chicken gets butchered, the innards get used to make dirty rice. If there’s rice left over from tonight’s supper, it’ll be used tomorrow morning to make rice calais, to go with breakfast. Dishes are cooked in such a way that each step adds to the dish’s overall flavor. Browning meat, homemade stock and a variety of herbs make for a complex dish with much flavor. I can’t stress this part enough, but fresh ingredients are always used. Cajuns take a lot of pride in their cooking.
As I said before, most Cajun food is cooked in one pot. There are a lot of gumbos, etoufees and meat pies in Cajun cuisine. It was the Cajuns who brought us the po’ boy. The po’ boy is a sandwich made from sausage or inexpensive cuts of meat simmered in a rich, thick sauce and served like a hero sandwich with lettuce and tomato. Of course, there are oyster po’ boys and other variations, but you get the idea.
Finally, I’ll give you a basic rundown of Cajun cooking techniques. Many gumbos and stews start with a roux. Equal parts flour and lard (real lard, not that store bought crap) are combined on medium heat and cooked until the flour turns brown. This gives you a nice nutty flavor to start your dish off with. Next, fresh vegetables are added and sauteed. Most often those vegetables start with onion, celery and bell peppers. They’ll cook down into the dish and provide another layer of flavor. Broth, meat and seasonings get added and the dish is simmered over a few hours. At the end of it all you wind up with tender meat, vegetables and a sauce full of flavors you can’t quite place but go together oh so well. Dishes are then served up over rice and finished off with some chopped green onion and parsley.
This really is a generalization. It doesn’t take into account dishes like Jambalaya, red beans and rice, roasted meat or meat pies. There are also many sauteed dishes that would take too long to describe here. Just remember, one pot cooking is common. A long list of fresh ingredients, combined at different stages of cooking provide layers of flavor. Ultimately, I think Cajun cuisine is best described as countryfied. It’s the epitome of down home country cooking. When looking for recipes or dishes in the restaurant, avoid the words “blackened” or “Cajun style.” I guarantee you they will not be Cajun. Cajun food is always made with love and care. That’s really the best way to describe this fantastic cuisine.