Louisiana's Culinary Lingo
The best way to learn Louisiana’s edible lingo is simply to sit down and start eating.
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.
Although every bowl of gumbo is as different as the person making it, 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. Learn how to make gumbo.
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 the Cajun heartland (also known as Acadiana) 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. Learn how to make jambalaya.
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 as well. 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. Learn how to make étouffée.
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Ian McNulty is a New Orleans, Louisiana-based reporter, columnist and author. He is a staff writer at the New Orleans Advocate and writes frequently about Louisiana culture.