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By Ian McNulty
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Crawfish étouffée
 You can't go wrong with rich, buttery crawfish étouffée. Photo by David Gallent.

Sometimes it seems like Louisiana speaks its own language in the kitchen.  Gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée?  These words just don’t come up much in everyday American cooking.  Fortunately, the best way to learn Louisiana’s edible lingo is simply to sit down and start eating.

Wherever you find that seat in Louisiana, there’s a good chance gumbo will be on the menu.  This rich, stew-like dish turns up everywhere, though there’s nothing standard about it.  “If eating and cooking gumbo are favorite pastimes in Louisiana, arguing about what is a good gumbo comes in a close third,” writes Louisiana folklorist Maida Owens.

All proper gumbos start with a roux, or flour and oil cooked together.  From this shared foundation, however, the differences pile up quick.  Around New Orleans, many a gumbo is loaded with seafood, tomato and okra, though the norm in Acadiana is for a darker roux with more smoked meats.  At Prejean’s Restaurant in Lafayette, the smoked duck and sausage gumbo is a classic of the Cajun style.  Meanwhile, in New Orleans, the Gumbo Shop shows off the diversity of the dish with options of seafood gumbo, chicken and sausage gumbo and even gumbo z’herbes, a meatless version made with greens.

Jambalaya is comfort food incarnate, and another Louisiana staple with a list of variations as long as its history.  A hearty dish of rice, meats and seafood, jambalaya’s close relative is paella and, like that Spanish classic, it is traditionally prepared in large batches for family meals and big celebrations.  A pot of jambalaya is sure to turn up at any tailgating scene or Mardi Gras parade route around Louisiana.

Jambalaya in restaurants around urban New Orleans often has a tomato base, while in Cajun country it’s usually brown and loaded with more meat than seafood.  The various locations of the Jambalaya Shoppe in the Baton Rouge area prepare a great example of the country style, serving it both as plate lunches and in “buckets” for large groups.

The name étouffée comes from the French for “to smother,” but it’s the local waterways that supply this third Louisiana standard.  A rich, buttery stew, it’s loaded with crawfish or shrimp and traditionally served over rice.  But étouffée is often also used to smother other dishes, like the catfish blackjack at Alexandria’s Cajun Landing Restaurant. In fact, cooks across Louisiana constantly put their own twists on these classics – a true sign of beloved dishes and a guarantee of delicious eating adventures ahead.