World Food

Savoring the Spices of Creole and Cajon Food

Cajun and Creole are words often used interchangeably when talking about food. Rooted in French cooking and mingled with cooking styles from around the world, they have a lot in common but are not the same.
— By John Jacobs

Justin Wilson was a combination Louisiana chef and humorist who would “garontee” people would have the time of their life following his recipes and enjoying the results. He cooked Cajun food with a flair which begs the question, "What is the difference between Cajun and Creole food?"

Though some people treat the terms as equals because of their common French culinary heritage, it can only be said they are equally delicious but different. This is a story of the two fascinating cooking styles and recipes that each reflect some history, some innovation, and a desire to light the taste buds on fire.

There is no arguing against the fact that Creole and Cajun foods do have a lot in common, but if you want to show your in-depth culinary knowledge, then be ready to use terms like roux, étouffée, and jambalaya with precision. This is a food world filled with fun, expert use of spices and a guarantee of happy taste buds.

An Historical Bon Appetit!
Cajun and Creole or Creole and Cajun … The two terms are often used interchangeably because they have many things in common. However, do not go to Louisiana and admit you think they are the same.

The history of these foods is a fascinating glimpse into two groups of people who came to the U.S. and brought wealth or escaped poverty; preserved their sophisticated European city heritage or survived using available ingredients in remote areas; and cooked for urbanites or fed country folk.

Think of Creole cooking as the city style and Cajun cooking as country.

Forget what the restaurants call Creole food because much of it has been Americanized and really does not reflect what people ate for generations. Creole foods were often elegant foods like oyster patties, mirliton (chayote, a tropical fruit) stuffed with crab meat, and gumbo made with a French roux.

The original Cajun cuisine is the product of hardy Arcadians who settled in the bayous and swamps. Cut off from urban areas, they blended their food knowledge with anything available; put all the ingredients in a pot; and then added homemade spices made out of a variety of hot peppers combined with garlic, onions, and bell pepper.

Cultures in a Stewpot
There is a long and fascinating Creole and Cajun history.

The original New Orleans Creoles in the early 1700s were early French settlers, and many were unwilling to live on Indian food, even though the Indians saved them from starving in swampy Louisiana by showing them how to cultivate corn, a variety of squash, and wild persimmons and choke berries for sweet syrups. The filé powder still used today is just like the powdered sassafras used back then to thicken stews.

New immigrants from places like Germany and Switzerland arrived, and by invitation, the Ursuline Sisters. The Ursulines were the daughters of French aristocrats and middle-class families, and brought the latest French recipes and cooking styles with them, including the use of herbs for medicinal purposes. Herbs still continue to play a big role in true Creole cooking.

Slaves were imported from Africa and the West Indies, bringing their sophisticated cooking techniques. They grew yams, corn, peanuts and onions and added these to their native diet of kidney beans, okra, and green leafy vegetables. Slow cooked single pots of food with unique sauces led to foods like gumbo z'herbes. Black cooks are believed to have adapted the French peasant's thickener called roux to stews, sauces, and soups.

The Spanish arrived in 1762, bringing their culinary knowledge that included cooking tricks learned from the Mayans, Incas, and Aztec. In fact, the word Creole comes from the Spanish word “criollo” which is how the people described themselves.

Les Acadiens Take to the Bayous and Swamps
The first Arcadians arrived around the same time as the Spanish. They were descendants of families who left France in the early 1500s and settled in Nova Scotia. Deported by the British from Canada for refusing to pledge allegiance to England, they settled in the bayous and swamps outside New Orleans. The word Cajun is from the French Les Acadiens. The colorful Cajuns of yesterday are just as colorful today.

So here are some major differences between Creole and Cajun cooking.

Creole cooking is more refined and emphasizes the use of ingredients like butter, cream, herbs (basil, white pepper, celery seed, etc.), garlic, and tomatoes. Crab cakes smothered in a delicate sauce is pure Creole. Creole roux for soups and stews is made with flour and butter. Cayenne pepper adds a bit of spicy flavoring and garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, oregano and paprika ensure a delicate flavor mix. It is often called “city food” because of its history and the fact it is New Orleans-born cuisine blending so many cultures.

Cajun food reflects the hardiness of the original settlers in its gumbos, stews and soups

A main difference between Creole and Cajun food is that Cajun recipes often do not include tomatoes, while Creole recipes do. Originally, the Cajun recipes called for local meat, game, vegetables and grains. This is why Wilson's cookbooks include recipes like rabbit étouffée and squirrel stew. Peppers and spices were used, but original and real Cajun food is not tongue-burning hot, despite what restaurants would have you believe. Cajun roux uses animal fat, instead of butter, and flour. Recipes include the same types of seasonings as Creole recipes, except not as much paprika.

The Language of Louisiana Recipes 'Mighty Good'
Creole gumbo is a stew that includes shellfish, tomatoes okra, and filé powder. Cajun gumbo does not include tomatoes and often contains chicken. Both types of gumbo can include meats, like sausage, and broths begin with cooking roux.

Jambalaya is a dish mixed with rice, seafood, vegetables and meat. Unlike gumbo, it does not include okra and filé powder.

Étouffée is another type of stew. It is thicker than gumbo and usually has one type of seafood, like crawfish or shrimp. In both styles of cooking, the "Holy Trinity" of celery, onion, and green pepper is used in stews and soups.

Cajun cook Wilson says in his cookbook (#1), "The right attitude is made up from two things: You' imagines and you' cmmon ol' horse sense….You' imagines eventually gonna tell you to add a little somethin' here, a little somethin' there to… recipes."

He could be talking about cooking Creole or Cajun food, but either way, the food is “mighty good!"