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Cajun and Creole cuisines are true New Orleans originals
Jambalaya is a classic Cajun dish.
New Orleans has some of the finest food in the world. But what are the differences between the two?
Cajun cuisine’s origins lie with the Acadians, who were deported by the British from Canada in the 1700s, eventually settling in the southern half of Louisiana. Today, their cuisine is known for its rusticity and dark roux, with popular dishes including gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish boils, and boudin; Cochon and Jacques-Imo’s are perhaps the best-known Cajun restaurants in the city.
On the other end of the spectrum, Creole cuisine is a fusion of everyone who’s ever settled in Louisiana, with influences ranging from French to Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Native American, and African. It tends more toward classical European styles than Cajun, and was favored by the upper classes. Traditional Creole dishes include oysters Rockefeller, shrimp remoulade, crawfish étouffée, turtle soup, trout meunière, and bread pudding; Commander’s Palace and Antoine’s are two of the more renowned Creole restaurants.
While the two cuisines are different, they do have one thing in common: they’re both ridiculously delicious.
Cajun vs. Creole: What's the difference in these cuisines?
Crawfish etouffee &mdash Photo courtesy of iStock / lisatop
The first sure sign that you’re a tourist in New Orleans is usually the butchering of the city’s name – nobody in Louisiana actually says "Nawlins." But a close runner-up is interchangeable usage of the words "Creole" and "Cajun." Cajun and Creole people, cultures and especially cuisines may blend well together, but should be appreciated for their differences. Here’s what you need to know to be respectful of these two distinct cultures and cuisines.
On the surface, the simplest way to discern between the two is to think of Creole as city food (and people), and Cajun as country food (and people). Creole historically refers to the descendants of the French (and later, Spanish) colonial settlers of New Orleans. As Africans were eventually introduced to the city by wealthy slave owners, the definition of Creole expanded to include Black New Orleanians as well.
French Creole is sometimes used to identify people that trace their roots primarily back to European ancestors in the city, while Louisiana Creole is used at times to describe mixed-race or Black descendants today.
Cajun jambalaya &mdash Photo courtesy of E+ / LauriPatterson
Creole food was prepared in the kitchens of colonial New Orleans, one of the most thriving port cities in the world. As such, Creoles had access to ingredients (and appetites) first grown in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe, in addition to what had been cultivated in the area by Native American tribes.
Vanilla, whiskey, okra and limes are just some of the foods brought into New Orleans from ports across the world that then made their way into Creole cooking. Creole food is therefore considered to be somewhat more varied and cosmopolitan than its Cajun cousin.
The quintessential Creole restaurant in New Orleans is Commander’s Palace, the iconic blue-striped Garden District fine dining destination where turtle soup, pecan-crusted fish, and oyster & absinthe stew are some of the main draws.
Cajun history has perhaps a few more twists and turns than the relatively New Orleans-centric Creole culture. The word 'Cajun' and its culture are derived from the original wave of French colonists who settled in Canada’s Acadia region (a swath of land running through Quebec, Nova Scotia and Maine).
Following a British takeover of the land, a large population of Acadians headed way, way south to Louisiana. Much like Creole has cultural subgroups within it, Cajuns are also often able to trace their heritage back to distinct communities based on the primarily rural area of Louisiana that they resettled in.
Creole gumbo &mdash Photo courtesy of E+ / LauriPatterson
Even in their swampy new environs, Cajuns clung to their French heritage. And though they lacked access to the imported spices and produce that Creoles bought off of the ships coming into New Orleans, Cajuns masterfully adapted the bounty of Louisiana’s agriculture and wild game to their French roots.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Cajun Holy Trinity – onion, celery and bell pepper – itself a play on the classic French mirepoix, which called for carrots instead of bell pepper.
A useful lens for discerning between the two is to consider how the technology of the day impacted cooking. Creole kitchens would have had access to ice boxes and rudimentary refrigeration capabilities, which in turn allowed for the preservation of products like butter or seafood from the gulf. To this day, a Creole roux is made with butter and flour, while a Cajun roux calls for flour and oil instead.
What rural Cajuns lacked in tech, they made up for in ingenuity. Without refrigeration to turn to, Cajuns developed innovative preservation methods with both smoke and salt. The classic example being the boucherie – the slaughter, roast and breakdown of an entire pig.
Cooking pork cracklins &mdash Photo courtesy of iStock / ErikaMitchell
Every bit of the pig is used during such an event. Rillons (candied pork belly) and head cheese (meat jelly made from the head) will make their way onto charcuterie boards. Chaurice, boudin and andouille sausages are stuffed. Chaudin or ponce is made from the stomach. Skin is transformed into cracklins, while odd strips of meat are made into smoked jerky.
And nowhere in New Orleans is this whole hog approach better exemplified than at Toups Meatery, Chef Isaac Toups’ Cajun wild game-forward restaurant. "Cajun folks used one chicken to feed three families, Creoles used three chickens to feed one family," says longtime New Orleans chef Mark Falgoust.
In a pinch, many Creole and Cajun dishes can be discerned from one another by the tomato test. Cajuns, in their relative cultural isolation, had no access to the produce staple. Cajun jambalaya is therefore tomato-free, while the Creole take on the Louisiana classic usually incorporates them.
Heck, they’re even called "Creole tomatoes" throughout much of Louisiana, and an annual festival celebrating them happens in New Orleans every June. But the tomato test is by no means foolproof.
Though Cajun and Creole cultures and cuisine each have specific origin stories, the two have simmered and blended into one another over multiple generations in steamy New Orleans. Even Chef Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for Cajun Jambalaya calls for a half cup of tomatoes. Nobody said this was going to be easy.
One final misconception that both cuisines share is the idea that food in New Orleans is slap-ya-mama spicy. Nope! The word you’re looking for is seasoned. Whether it’s blackened redfish, fried alligator or a hot cup of shrimp gumbo, Cajun and Creole food both are known for their heavy-handed spicing of dishes. But these spices – paprika, thyme and file (ground sassafras), for example – are better described as bold than spicy.
Cajun vs. Creole: What's The Difference?
Compared to Louisiana, other states have it easy. Sure, Louisiana is home of the Big Easy and we locals are known for our joie de vivre, but we are also parents to some of the most precious cuisines in the world. While we may, on occasion, have one too many Bloody Marys at Sunday brunch or add some "punch" to our milk, we don't take this responsibility lightly. Even when away from the motherland, Louisianans still find ourselves bragging about and defending our pride and joy. Perhaps the most difficult task is explaining our food in a few short sentences. Of course, a Louisianan would prefer to sit down, put on a pot of coffee or pour a cold beer, and talk about it at length. However, we've come to learn that most people don't have the time to do that. So if you're versed on Louisiana history and culture, then all you really need to know is that Creole cuisine uses tomatoes, and proper Cajun food does not. That's how you tell a Cajun versus Creole gumbo or jambalaya. You can stop reading now. You're welcome. However, if you'd like to go a bit deeper, please continue reading so that you can learn why the terms Cajun and Creole that have become used so loosely and interchangeably when describing Louisiana food, are not at all the same.
A vastly over-simplified way to describe the two cuisines is to deem Creole cuisine "city food" and Cajun cuisine "country food." While many of the ingredients in Cajun and Creole dishes are similar, the real difference between the two styles is the people behind these famous cuisines. They say in order to really know someone, meet their family. The same goes for food. The best place to find authentic Cajun and Creole cooking is in homes across the state. Many of Louisiana's most talented chefs learned their trade from their parents or grandparents. Cajun and Creole are two distinct cultures, and while over the years they continue to blend, there is still a vast distinction.
The word Cajun originates from the term les Acadians, used to describe French colonists who settled in the Acadia region of Canada, consisting of present-day New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. With the British conquest of Acadia in the early 1700s, the Acadians were forcibly removed from their homes in what become known as "Le Grand Dérangement," or the Great Upheaval. Many Acadians eventually settled in the swampy region of Louisiana, today known as Acadiana.
The Acadians were an extremely resourceful people who took full advantage of the flatlands, bayous, and wild game of South Louisiana and its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico to create a truly unique local cuisine. While many Acadiana residents today have German, French, or Italian roots, among others, their way of life is strongly influenced by the Cajun culture. As LSU history professor William Arceneaux puts it, "All Cajuns are Acadians, but not all Acadians are Cajuns." Along with its food, this rural area of Louisiana is famous for its Cajun French music and language.
Without access to modern-day luxuries like refrigerators, the Cajuns learned to make use of every part of a slaughtered animal. When a pig is butchered, the event is called a boucherie. Boudin, a type of Cajun sausage which consists of pork meat, rice, and seasoning stuffed into a casing, also commonly contains pig liver for a little extra flavor. Tasso and Andouille are two other Cajun pork products that use salts and smoke as preservatives. Cajun food is famous for being well seasoned, which is sometimes misunderstood as spicy. Seasoning is one of the most important parts of Cajun cooking, and that comes from much more than a heavy helping of cayenne pepper. Most dishes begin with a medley of vegetables based on the French mirepoix. "The holy trinity of Cajun cuisine" utilizes onion, celery, and bell pepper (rather than carrots) to provide a flavor base for many dishes. Garlic is never far away from any stove, either. Paprika, thyme, filé (ground sassafras leaves), parsley, and green onions are also very common ingredients in Cajun kitchens.
The term Creole describes the population of people who were born to settlers in French colonial Louisiana, specifically in New Orleans. In the 18th century, Creoles consisted of the descendants of the French and Spanish upper-class that ruled the city. Over the years the term grew to include native-born slaves of African descent, as well as free people of color. Typically, the term French Creole described someone of European ancestry born in the colony, and the term Louisiana Creole described someone of mixed racial ancestry.
Like the people, Creole food is a blend of the various cultures of New Orleans, including Italian, Spanish, African, German, Caribbean, Native American, and Portuguese, to name a few. Creole cuisine is thought of as a little higher-brow or aristocratic when compared to Cajun. Traditionally, slaves in the kitchens of well-to-do members of society prepared the food, and with an abundance of time and resources, their dishes offered an array of spices from various regions, and creamy soups and sauces. A remoulade sauce, for example, which consists of nearly a dozen ingredients, would not typically be found in Cajun kitchens. Creole cuisine has more variety, because of the easier access Creoles had to exotic ingredients and the wide mix of cultures that contributed to the cuisine. That's why you find tomatoes in Creole jambalaya and not in Cajun jambalaya, or why you often find a Creole roux made with butter and flour, while a Cajun roux is made with oil and flour.
The only place to get true Creole and Cajun food is in Louisiana, or at least in the kitchen of someone from Louisiana. However, if traveling down South isn't in the cards, now you know a few tips that can help you determine if a dish is close to being authentically Cajun or Creole. Luckily, in Louisiana, true Cajun and Creole food will never stray far away from its roots. With each new generation of Louisianans, there is a vested interest in its history and culture, and a proud new set of parents. There is no one better suited to ensure that Louisiana food adheres to its traditions and reputations. And over 4.4 million people are fit for the job.
Cajun vs. Creole: What's the Difference?
Cajun vs Creole--what's the difference? If you thought they were the same and completely interchangeable, you're not alone! But the two are actually quite distinct with different historical backgrounds and ingredients. The word Creole comes from the word “criollo” which is a Spanish word that means “local or native.” When New Orleans was founded, Creole simply meant “New World French,” and often comprised the commercial classes who settled the famed French Quarter. In Louisiana today, the word Creole is often used to refer to people who have mixed ancestry—French colonial, African American, and Native American.
The word Cajun comes from les Cadiens or “the Acadians.” The Acadians came the French colony of Acadia in Canada (now Nova Scotia) and were expelled from their home by the British in the early-mid-1700s. The king of France gave them a land grant and they and relocated to the bayou regions of Louisiana, south and west of New Orleans.
Although both groups have French roots, they represent different cultures, classes, and histories.
What are the main differences in Cajun and Creole food?
Cajun food is “country food.” Because the Cajuns lived out in bayou country they usually had access only to local ingredients. They cooked with what they had, making use of every part of animals they could hunt, trap, fish or tend.
Creole food is “city food,” and like our urban areas counts a wide variety of cultural influences. Creole cooking incorporates flavors from Spain, France, Germany, Africa, the West Indies, and Native Americans. The Choctaw Indians, for example, introduced Creoles to file powder (a spice made from dried sassafras leaves), a common ingredient in gumbo. The Creoles had access to more ingredients in the city than the Cajuns did. This is why you’ll often see tomatoes in Creole cooking, but not in Cajun food you’ll also notice that Creole roux uses butter, rather than oil or animal lard, because butter was a luxury that Cajuns did not have.
What does Cajun and Creole cooking have in common?
For both Cajun and Creole cooking, the holy trinity are onion, celery, and bell pepper. This is a Louisiana variation of the French mirepoix, which is made up of onion, celery, and carrots.
One common misconception is that Cajun cooking and Creole cooking are spicy or “hot.” Though I’m not saying both don’t like a little heat to their food, Cajun cooking tends to be spicier than Creole cooking, and both are known for being flavorful and well-seasoned.
Now that you know the difference, try out our Creole Chicken and Sausage Gumbo and read about the Secrets to the Perfect Roux.
Read all about Mardi Gras in Mardi Gras 101
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What's The Difference Between Cajun Food And Creole Food?
While it may seem difficult to point to the differences between Creole and Cajun food, it's. not. Here, a breakdown of where each cuisine originated, what the differences are, and where to find the best of each.
Where did Cajun food come from?
To be clear, both Cajun and Creole food come from Louisiana. That said, Cajun food can be traced to "the Acadiana region of southwest Louisiana," Southern Living reports. It can be found across the state, but is typically referred to as "country food," distinguishable by its hearty, mostly one-pot dishes.
How about Creole food?
Contrastingly, The Spruce Eats confirms, Creole food is "city food." It began in New Orleans and is associated more with seafood than with meat.
What are the actual differences between the two?
Both cuisines have heavy French influences due to the influx of French settlers across the state in the 18th century. Besides the geographical differences, another big distinguisher between the two is the roux they use. Creole roux usually is made from butter and flour, as opposed to Cajun roux, which is often made of lard or oil and flour. Also, Creole cuisine uses a lot (like, a lot) more tomatoes than Cajun food does&mdashin fact, Louisiana Travel says that's the easiest way to tell a Cajun gumbo or jumbalaya from a Creole one. Cajun versions will not have tomatoes.
Where should I go for incredible Creole food? Cajun food?
Well, New Orleans, for starters! That's where you'll find Creole classics like shrimp Creole, grits, beignets, and more. Excellent Cajun food can be found more broadly across the state.
More difficult to define than Cajun, the term Creole is highly debated and holds no official definition. Historians have defined Creole as meaning anything from an ethnic group consisting of individuals with European and African, Caribbean or Hispanic descent to individuals born in New Orleans with French or Spanish ancestry. However someone defines it, it is clear that the impact of Creole culture and heritage has made its mark on New Orleans through various avenues and means. Many elements of New Orleans&rsquo history, art, food and more are due to Creole contributions.
What's the Difference Between Creole and Cajun Food?
Chowing down on gumbo for Mardi Gras? We know and love Louisiana food to be zesty, flavorful, and hearty𠅋ut the words 𠇌reole” and jun” are often incorrectly used interchangeably to describe the cuisine of this region. While both styles of cooking do share certain traits, they both emerged from different cultures and traditions. Here’s the breakdown on some of the distinctive flavors of The Big Easy and the surrounding regions.
Admittedly, Creole and Cajun food have a lot in common, starting with an incredibly diverse range of culinary influences that originated in Louisiana. Ingredients and cooking techniques were drawn from French, Spanish, Native American, and African food traditions𠅎ven drawing influence from the West Indies, Ireland, Italy, and German cuisine. Another similarity: Both Creole and Cajun cooking commonly use a “holy trinity” base of onions, bell pepper, and celery in their dishes, similar to a French mirepoix, which consists of onion, carrot, and celery.
However, Creole cooking is often considered more 𠇌ity” food than its Cajun counterpart. According to The New Food Lover’s Companion, it uses pricier ingredients like expensive seafood, tomatoes, cream, and butter, drawing more heavily from classical French cooking techniques. This style of cooking is often seen as more luxurious and refined, as it was developed in wealthier, aristocratic homes in the 18th and 19th century𠅊 common saying is, 𠇊 Creole feeds one family with three chickens and a Cajun feeds three families with one chicken.”
You’ll notice that Creole food commonly starts with a light, butter-based roux, the sauces can often be red because of the addition of tomatoes, and dishes tend to be more time and labor intensive, requiring hours of simmering and preparation because they were historically made for families that could afford cooks and servants. So if your gumbo or jambalaya looks more red than brown, you’re probably eating one made in a more Creole style.
On the flip side, Cajun food is considered more 𠇌ountry” and makes greater use of oil and animal fats like lard. These cooking fats are cheaper and more readily available in Acadiana, which is the region of Louisiana where this style of cooking was developed. Due to limited access to expensive, imported ingredients, Cajun food often relied more heavily on what was already available in the region, which is largely made up of bayous, swampland, and prairies. This means game meat, shellfish (think crawfish), and native ingredients like filé powder are used more frequently in Cajun cuisine. The food is known to be much more frugal, making complete use of slaughtered animals, which is why Cajun roux often starts with a lard base. Cajun stews and sauces also typically a deeper brown in color, made with more economical cuts of meat, and use fewer fresh herbs, garlic, or produce like tomatoes.
The majority of Cajun and Creole food that you’ll find today is often a blend of both culture’s traditions. If you’re ready to try your hand at Creole and Cajun food, start by making a roux: a common base in both cuisines. Think you’re ready to go all out? Make a hearty gumbo or jambalaya, and enjoy that Louisiana flavor a little more, knowing you’re savoring centuries of tradition.
The word Cajun originates from the term les Acadians, used to describe French colonists who settled in the Acadia region of Canada, consisting of present-day New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. With the British conquest of Acadia in the early 1700s, the Acadians were forcibly removed from their homes in what become known as “Le Grand Dérangement,” or the Great Upheaval. Many Acadians eventually settled in the swampy region of Louisiana, today known as Acadiana.
The Acadians were an extremely resourceful people who took full advantage of the flatlands, bayous, and wild game of South Louisiana and its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico to create a truly unique local cuisine. While many Acadiana residents today have German, French, or Italian roots, among others, their way of life is strongly influenced by the Cajun culture. As LSU history professor William Arceneaux puts it, “All Acadians are Cajuns, but not all Cajuns are Acadians.” Along with its food, this rural area of Louisiana is famous for its Cajun French music and language.
Without access to modern-day luxuries like refrigerators, the Cajuns learned to make use of every part of a slaughtered animal. When a pig is butchered, the event is called a boucherie. Boudin, a type of Cajun sausage which consists of pork meat, rice, and seasoning stuffed into a casing, also commonly contains pig liver for a little extra flavor. Tasso and Andouille are two other Cajun pork products that use salts and smoke as preservatives. Cajun food is famous for being well seasoned, which is sometimes misunderstood as spicy. Seasoning is one of the most important parts of Cajun cooking, and that comes from much more than a heavy helping of cayenne pepper. Most dishes begin with a medley of vegetables based on the French mirepoix. “The holy trinity of Cajun cuisine” utilizes onion, celery, and bell pepper (rather than carrots) to provide a flavor base for many dishes. Garlic is never far away from any stove, either. Paprika, thyme, filé (ground sassafras roots), parsley, and green onions are also very common ingredients in Cajun kitchens.
What’s the Difference Between Shrimp Creole and Shrimp Etouffee?
No, shrimp creole and shrimp etouffee are completely different, yet related, dishes.
The Long Answer
I love shrimp articles. It’s such a versatile seafood. One of my favorite things about shrimp both as a cook and an eater is the amazing versatility in its recipes.
That brings us to two similar dishes with a few key differences. Shrimp Creole and shrimp etouffee are both served over rice and feature a wealth of additional ingredients with a sauce base. They’re definitely related. I’d call them first cousins at best because they’re cut from the same mold (not literally) but there are a number of variances that make them quite different.
Let’s start with shrimp creole. This is a pretty standard shrimp and rice dish which uses tomato as the base of its sauce. The sauce is thin and the whole dish tends to be redder in color. Shrimp creole features a bunch of ingredients, usually comprising tomato, rice, shrimp, peppers, and okra.
Shrimp Etouffee comes from a French word which translates to “smothered” and it lives up to that moniker with its gravy-like sauce. Again, it’s shrimp with rice but the major difference is that the sauce is made of a thick roux, which combines butter and wheat flour. It’s also usually spicy and uses quite a bit of cayenne pepper. In terms of color, you’re looking at an orange dish with some brown streaks. Etouffee is usually made from shrimp (duh), rice, celery, peppers, green onion, and roux.
So there you have it. Two shrimp and rice dishes that can definitely be compared but should never be mistaken for one another.
Ready to cook and compare them for yourself? Check out our versions of Shrimp Creole and Shrimp Etouffee over at Cook the Story.
What is your favorite shrimp dish? Do you prefer shrimp creole or shrimp etouffee? How much spice do you like in your shrimp dish? Sound off in the comment section below and let us know!