A few months ago my husband, Matthew, took me to an awesome Cajun restaurant, here in Indianapolis. It smells amazing as soon as you walk in the door and they are jam packed with people devouring the endless sides you get for free when you order an entrée- you will get home and need a Thanksgiving nap, for sure. We squeeze into the last little empty table and there is a bottle of homemade hot sauce waiting for our food to arrive. This local joint is called Papa Roux, go check it out & let me know how you liked it! I’ll simply say, the food had been on my mind ever since.
So when Matthew’s birthday came around, I did a Cajun buffet for the party. We had Jambalaya, Mushroom Etouffee, Maque Roux, Rice, Sweet Corn Bread and Bread Pudding with a Bourbon Sauce. All of his favorite dishes and it was one of the most delicious and fun menus I’ve had the privilege of cooking. The dishes have this beautiful etiquette about them, the way they blend delicate French cooking techniques with our hearty local produce and rustic seasonings. Captivated by the simplicity of these dishes that have such complicated flavors, I started researching the history of Cajun food and this, shall we call it… obsession, led to some awesome discoveries.
Cajun cuisine developed in Louisiana when the French colonists who settled in Canada were forcibly removed from their homes in what became known as Le Grand Derangement or the Great Upheaval. They settled in the swampy region of Louisiana, now known as Acadiana. Combining the experienced cooking techniques of the French, the resourcefulness of the Native Americans, and their eager use of the local produce and game; this cuisine has become one of the most unique in America.
Though they are thought to be interchangeable, Cajun cuisine and Creole cuisine are quite different. In its most simple explanation, Creole is the cuisine of the city and Cajun is the cuisine of the country. Another oversimplified distinguishing feature is that Creole dishes use tomatoes, and proper Cajun food does not. Of course the real difference between these two styles is the people. We learned that the Cajun people were French Canadian colonists who were forced from their homes into the country. The Creole people were however, a population of people who were the descendants of the French and Spanish upper-class that ruled the city, namely New Orleans. This term grew to include local native-born people of African descent as well. Because of this Creole has influence from many different cultures including; French, Spanish, African, German, Caribbean, Native American and Portuguese.
Another misconception we commonly have about Cajun food is that it must be spicy. Historically, they used a blend of many spices and herbs to flavor their dishes but somewhere along the line we expected all of these dishes to light your mouth on fire. While that may sometimes be the case, it is not always and it is certainly not a requirement for awesome Cajun food. We have also come to associate blackening of fish or chicken with traditional Cajun cuisine, however, in the 1970s chef Paul Prudhomme invented this technique and presented it as a Cajun tradition. Though we are grateful for his invention of such a flavorful and delicious technique, one can’t help but wonder, why he went about presenting it to the world the way he did.
One thing that Cajun culture did bring us, which is very unique to itself, is the Dark Roux. Though they inherited the roux technique from the French, they made theirs with oil or bacon fat, not with butter. It is used as a thickening agent and to add an additional layer of flavor to the dish. This would be used most commonly in a gumbo or etouffee. Preparation of a dark roux is probably the most involved and complicated procedure in all of Cajun cuisine. To make it: heat your fat in the pan, add flour, and stir constantly for 15-45 minutes, depending on how dark you want the roux to be. It is very easy to burn, and the darker the color the more developed your flavor is. A dark roux has a very flavorful nuttiness. A burnt roux, however, is not edible. Low heat and constant stirring are the secrets to a good roux. It is said that the scent of a good roux is so strong that even after leaving your house the smell is still embedded in your clothes. This scent is so strong and recognizable that others are often able to tell you’ve made a roux and assume it was for gumbo.
The Cajun Cuisine is also well known for its use of green bell peppers, onions and celery. Cajun chefs refer to this combination as, the holy trinity and with the addition of garlic, the holy trinity and the pope. These aromatic vegetables are used in a method similar to the mirepoix, in traditional French cooking, which uses carrot in place of the peppers. Many of the savory dishes from the Cajun kitchen will start with the holy trinity.
I hope that this article leaves you excited that here in the Melting Pot, we do indeed have some unique and awesome food to call our own. It doesn’t end with Cajun food; every region in America is rich with a culinary history that has become unique to itself. If you would like to receive our newsletter so you don’t miss the next article or recipes, click here to sign up.
If you are ready for a Cajun experience of your own check out the recipes posted on our blog and visit Papa Roux.
I look forward to reading your comments!