One of Louisiana’s Top Chefs Reveals the Truth About Cajun Food
Cajun food is one of the most misunderstood cuisines out there -- usually it’s mistaken for extra spicy fish that’s been blackened (aka burnt) beyond all recognition, or anything with a little cayenne pepper thrown on top. In reality, Cajun food is one of the most distinct cuisines coming out of Louisiana, with a culture just as complex as its dishes. We talked to John Folse, a leading expert on Louisiana food and the chef behind Restaurant R'evolution at Royal Sonesta New Orleans, to break down the myths and truths about Cajun cuisine. Get ready to get hungry (and educated):
MYTH: Cajun and Creole food is the same thing.
Cajun and Creole is more than just cuisine, it’s two different cultures, developed about 70 miles apart. That is more than the distance between NYC and rural New Jersey, which may as well be two different planets. While there is some crossover of ingredients, Cajuns were basically the rural folks, while Creoles were the urban city slickers, and that’s reflected in their foods. According to Folse, Cajun is comfort food of the “stick to your ribs” variety and heavily utilizes ingredients found in the local swampland. These are normally simple meals, cooked in a cast iron pot, served with rice and beans. Creoles, meanwhile, looked for ways to incorporate European ingredients into their diet while using what was available in Louisiana. So they would import some ingredients, like squashes and eggplant, then turn out multi-course, opulent meals featuring complicated dishes. A Creole remoulade sauce, for example, has about a dozen ingredients … and it’s served on the side.
TRUTH: Every Cajun dish includes the “trinity.”
Cajuns are the descendants of Acadians and French Catholic colonists who came to New Orleans after they were exiled from Canada by the British. Given this, it makes sense that the backbone of every Cajun dish is a play on the French “mirepoix” (chopped onions, celery, carrots) and the “Holy Trinity” (onions, celery, bell pepper, no Holy Ghost). The trinity, plus garlic, parsley and scallions, makes for an authentic Cajun dish. Says Folse: “If you walk up to a pot in Louisiana, and it’s ready to serve, and you don’t see green onions and parsley still in their nice green fashion on top of the pot, you just pick up your goddamn purse and get out the door. You don’t want to eat it. “
“If you walk up to a pot in Louisiana, and it’s ready to serve, and you don’t see green onions and parsley still in their nice green fashion on top of the pot, you just pick up your goddamn purse and get out the door.”
MYTH: Cajun food is always super spicy.
When Cajun and Creole food was first introduced on a global scale in the ‘80s, most people became familiar with Chef Paul Prudhomme’s version of blackened redfish: a filet seasoned with spices and cayenne pepper, then seared in a cast iron pot ‘til those seasons were extra toasty. It was incredibly popular and led to lots of imitations, which led to poorly crafted dishes that were way too spicy, according to Folse. The reality is, most Cajun and Creole dishes are highly seasoned, rather than just hot and spicy. The dishes call for ingredients with a ton of flavor, like fresh vegetables and smoked meats. A properly prepared Cajun or Creole dish should leave you with a warm feeling in the back of your throat -- not running to gulp down a glass of milk to put out the fire spreading down your esophagus.
TRUTH: The swamp was (and still is) where Cajuns shop for ingredients.
Long before foraging was a thing, it was a way of life for Cajuns. Folse calls it shopping in the “swamp floor pantry” because growing up, that’s exactly how he and his siblings would get ingredients for dinner. The swamplands provided plentiful naturally growing herbs and seasonings, like sassafras, which could be ground into filé powder, the spicy ingredient in gumbos. Pepperworth and wild garlic were usually incorporated, as were the frogs, turtles, and wild catfish that they would pull from murky waters.
MYTH: Cajun dishes all use the same roux.
A roux is a combination of fat and flour used to thicken sauces, but not all roux are the same -- especially in Cajun cooking. A traditional French roux is a combo of butter and flour, but Cajuns use different oils and fats to make particular roux for particular dishes. For example, Folse makes a dark brown roux with vegetable oil for his traditional Cajun dishes, like smoked duck gumbo. That dark roux is hearty enough to stand up to the smoky flavors of the duck. But for a seafood gumbo, you need a lighter roux, one the color of a paper bag, to compliment the fish without overpowering the flavors. Some of his roux call for animal fat, bacon, butter, lard, or even peanut oil, depending on the dish, to result in different flavors. All of this Folse learned from his father, as part of cooking traditions passed down in his family: “We went to culinary school all our lives, taught by our grandmothers and grandfathers.”
TRUTH: Cajuns will eat anything that doesn’t eat them first.
When a group of executives and journalists came to Folse for an authentic Cajun dinner at his home last year, he wanted to give them a true taste of what his family ate growing up. So, he called his brother to see if had any raccoon in his freezer, then smoked it for hours, low and slow, in a traditional gumbo. “If it crawled, if it swam, or if it flew, it was in trouble in Cajun country,” Folse says of Cajun dishes, which feature everything from wild boar to alligator. His family would also take egg sacs out of the fish they caught and fry them with lard for breakfast. His restaurants now feature a “Cajun caviar” with eggs from the choupique (aka bowfin or mudfish), which was historically considered a “trash” fish, featured on top of a fancy yellowfin tuna crudo.
“If it crawled, if it swam, or if it flew, it was in trouble in Cajun country.”
MYTH: Gumbo is an all-encompassing word for Cajun stews and soups.
Because this most traditional dish has seemingly endless varieties, you may be tempted to call any slightly soupy bowl in Louisiana a “gumbo.” You’d be wrong. First, if there’s rice in the dish rather than alongside it, it’s not a gumbo, it’s probably jambalaya, which is the Cajun variation of a paella. A Cajun sauce piquant is a spicy, thick stew also served over rice, but unlike gumbo, it’s made with Spanish peppers to bring the heat. Cajuns also have their own version of French etouffees (meaning to cover or smother). This dish is also spicy, but is made with a blonde roux, making it thicker and perfect for seafood, like crawfish, and is heavy enough to be a main dish.
TRUTH: Cajuns have their own wine varieties, and even spirits.
There’s a reason why New Orleans is home to Mardi Gras: the people there don’t just know how to mix & shake drinks at a party, a lot of them can even ferment their own. When Cajuns first made their way to Louisiana, getting a hold of a bottle of wine for dinner wasn’t as simple as heading to a liquor store. Instead, they used the fruits that grew in the swampland to make their own varieties, like muscadine wine, which is made from a Louisiana muscadine grape variety. They also are known for making a “cherry bounce” -- a spirit made from fermented tart cherries, usually served around the holidays. “Ratifias” or a blend of fruit and brandy, are also popular at a Louisiana table. A ratifia with camelia and persimmon is on the cocktail menu at Bar R’evolution -- drink a few and you will no doubt learn what it’s like to be misunderstood.