Cajun cooking exists alongside Creole cooking in the American state of Louisiana, one of the Mississippi states. The majority of its population is of catholic French or Spanish and African origin.
Spanish exploerers were the first to arrive here in the 16th century. But it was not until the end of the 17th century, when France claimed all the lands drained by the Mississippi River and tribituaries for Louis XIV, naming it Louisiana, that colonies were established.
In the mid 18th century, France ceded Louisiana to Spain, which used the colony as a barrier to protect its vast gold and silver mines in Mexico and the southwest against the threat from Anglo American settlements to the north and east.
Immigrants from many countries were allowed to settle, including the Cadians, a group of people who originally settled in the French colony of Nova Scotia in eastern Canada as early as 1632. They were called Acadians or Cadians, people who first originated in the Poitou region of France.
In 1755, the British captured Nova Scotia and ordered the Cadians to take the oath of allegiance or be expelled. Many refused. They were deported and spread all over all over Canada, America and the Caribbean for a century. They used the Spanish settlement offer to move into the swamps, prairies and coastal regions where they started to rebuild their lives.
A strong sense of family and community fortified these fragmented people as they struggled to survive as a group. They lived alongside and intermarried with settlers from other European countries as well as American tribes such as the Houmas, the Chitimaca and some African Creoles.
The blending of cultures produced what is a mispronounciation of Cadian, which is Cajun.
In Louisiana, the Cadians from cold north Nova Scotia had to adapt to sub-tropical conditions and had to learn many new things, including what was available to eat in Louisiana, and how to cook it.
They settled in the mangrove swamps and bayous of the Mississippi and the southwestern prairies of Louisiana. West of New Orleans is the traditional home, where they developed their own unique style of cooking and music, and spoke their own dialect of French.
The prairie settlers established ranches and learned how to cultivate maize, potatotoes, beans and rice, while the French and African Creoles taught them how to grow sugar cane, okra, and cotton. They established farms for their large families. Those in the bayous learned from Native Americans how to fish for for bass, catfish, perch, river crab and crawfish and how to hunt alligator, possum, wild turkey, raccoon, squirrel, elk, moose and other game.
Early Cajun meals were designed by necessity to be economical. Louisiana is a region of lakes, rivers and swamps, ideal for fishing and outdoor activities. In the north, the hills are covered with pine forests, while bordering the Gulf of Mexico, there are the bayous, a series of silent, sluggish rivers, overhung by moss-draped oaks and strange vegatation, winding their way through farmlands, swamps and marshlands.
One-pot cookery became very popular, using wild corn, river crab, alligator and other ingredients which by themselves would go nowhere, but in Cajun hands, would be transformed with herbs and spicy seasonings into a variety of mouthwatering treats.
The Poitou region of France is well-known for its distinct provincial cuisine that makes use of long slow casserole cooking, marinades, herbs and spices, sauce (roux) and sausage-making.
The Cajun boudin sausages, both red and white, are said to have derived from the original French boudin noir or blood sausage. Andouille, large stuffed intestines, and chaudin, stuffed stomach, along with fromage de tete, head cheese, are part of a French tradition to make use of every part of the animal when it is butchered.
But over the centuries, it obtained its own identity. Most people associate Cajun cooking with jambalaya, gumbo, Cajun spices, that include the use of sassafras and chillies and peppers in one form or another.
Jambalaya is not a new American or Cajun term – it is believed to be of Arabian origin while Le Jambalaia, a dish of chicken rice is a traditional Provincal dish.
okra, and items such as crawfish. The latter is probably due to a Cajun family tradition of rapidly boiling up, in a large vat, hundreds of fresh crawfish with potatoes, maize, vegetables and spices and then tipping them out onto a table covered with newspaper.
These freshwater crawfish used to be called “mud bugs”, a derogatory term in reference to their status as poor Southern fare. Due to commercial processing, these crawfish have taken on an exotic auro and become increasingly fashionable to serve at trendy dinner tables, although over 80% of the annual harvest is still consumed locally.
In fact, a “crab boil” is a must to attend – a typical Cajun gathering where the cooks, usually men, prepare mointains of crawfish for communal consumption by family, friends or collegaues. They just tackle the boiled shellfood, heaped on a table lined with newspaper, with bare hands either standing or sitting neck to neck, peeling and pinching (the tail) with their fingers and sucking (the head) – eating one after the other with slugs of beer until they burst.
This is a popular shirt-sleeve feast that can include boiled crabs and shrimp as well, all highly seasoned, washed down with beer. As Gutierrez puts it in his Cajun Foodways:” A crawfish boil is an event which celebrates Cajun joie de vivre and espirit de corps”.
Another speciality using crawfish is crawfish bisque.
Cajun cooking must therefore not be confused with Creole cooking, although it shares common things such as gumbo. There are Creole and Cajun versions of these as well as of jambalaya (Louisiana’s answer to the Spanish paella). Creole dishes, once the food of French and Spanish aristocrats, with their subtle sauces and discreet use of herbs such as thyme and bay leaves, are said to have more affinity to grande cuisine. Cajun food is more robust – it is country fare that is less affluent, but is more highly seasoned with herbs, spices and chilli peppers, served in generous quantities with vegetables. A little Tabasco sauce – made here – is essential in chilled avocado soup and seafood gumbo.
Tabasco sauce is a sharp red sauce and has also been referred to as pepper sauce. Tabasco peppers are grown in Louisiana, and especially on Avery Island, a stretch of coast on the Gulf of Mexico. In Native American, abasco means moist or damp earth, which one finds in this region, and the name is therefore not a brand name.
In fact, some people have loosely defined Creole cooking as city cooking originating in Louisiana, and Cajun cooking as country cooking of Acadian origins.
The Cajuns developed a close attachment to the land till today – fishing, hunting, and camping out on the banks of the bayous. From this developed various recipes, such as blackened fish, a Cajun specialty made famous by Paul Prudhomme. It is always cooked outdoors in a cast-iron frying pan over a glowing hot barbecue, as indoors it would give off too much smoke.
Another specialty, catfish with hush puppies (cornmeal dumplings) is said to have developed from an old habit by fishermen, who used to cook their catch on the river bank. In order to keep their barking dogs quiet, some of the flour coating for the fish was rolled into little balls and thrown to the dogs with a cry of “Hush, puppies!” Another tale is that these fritters made old people so contented, that they slept like puppies at night after eating them.
But even more so, their cuisine has led to the establishment of fine dedicated restaurants all over America, like Bon Ton Cafe and Brenan’s Restaurant in New Orleans itself, as well as become popular outside America, with Cajun meals being served in dedicated Cajun and other restaurants throughout the world.
CAJUN SPICE MIX
DRIED VERSION FRESH VERSION
50 ml paprika 1 large finely chopped red pepper
50 ml onion powder 1 large fine chopped red onion
50 ml thyme 50 ml freshly chopped thyme
25 ml oreganum 37 ml freshly chopped oreganum
12 ml cayenne pepper 10-15 ml chopped fresh chillies
30 ml ground black pepper 30 ml ground peper
30 ml ground white pepper 30 ml ground white pepper
20 ml celery salt 20 ml chopped celery leaf tops
20 ml garlic salt 20 ml sea salt
15 ml garlic powder 2 cloves chopped garlic