“There’s nothing in the world like the food you can find in Louisiana,” Chef Isaac Toups, owner of popular New Orleans Toups Meatery, told VOA. “It’s a unique mix of so many different cultures that have come together from all over the world. They brought their ideas to eat and created a kitchen that is second to none. “
Immigrant culinary influences in New Orleans, a port city near the mouth of the Mississippi, stretch for centuries. From French colonists who were the first Europeans to permanently settle in the area in 1699, to Vietnamese immigrants in the 1970s, to newcomers from around the world, newcomers have continuously expanded the DNA of the local cuisine.
Liz Williams, founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and author of New Orleans: A Nutritional Biography, says the way cultures – and cuisines – have merged in this southern city compared to other places in America is something unique.
“You can find any food in the world in New York City,” said Williams. “Go two blocks this way for this type of kitchen and six blocks the other direction for this type of kitchen.”
New Orleans, on the other hand, has produced a gastronomic melting pot. Or, to use a local analogy, a gumbo.
“There is no such thing as ‘New York cuisine’ because all these immigrant groups didn’t grow together,” she said. “In New Orleans, however, all of these different cuisines were influenced by immigrant New Orleans food and influenced New Orleans food. There is a merging, merging and updating that seems to be happening all the time here that does not take place in other places. “
Mention Louisiana cuisine and most people think of Creole cuisine, Cajun cuisine, or a mixture of both.
“When the two foods were first established in Louisiana in the 18th century, they were two different cuisines from two different regions,” said Chef Donald Link, owner of several New Orleans restaurants, all under the Link Restaurant banner Group operated. “Creole food was created in New Orleans while Cajun food was served in the more rural, southwestern part of the state.”
New Orleans Creole culture emerged from a mix of early French settlers, Spanish immigrants who followed shortly afterwards, enslaved people from Africa, and the Native Americans already living here. After the United States bought Louisiana from France in 1803, waves of Anglo-Americans came to New Orleans as well as thousands who fled the concurrent Haitian Revolution.
The confluence of the rivers created a unique mix of cultures, which is still reflected in the local cuisine to this day.
“New Orleans is often referred to as the northernmost city in the Caribbean, and there has been a lot of influence from the Latin American countries controlled by Spain,” Link explained. “They brought their rice, beans, guisados and stews. And then the French brought their boudin and fricassees and all those famous techniques, and Africans had gumbo, which is the West African word for okra. It all came together to make that do what we call Creole food. “
Creole food is considered cosmopolitan cuisine. It often features rich sauces, local herbs, ripe tomatoes, and local seafood.
“You use what you have available,” said Brad Hollingsworth, owner of longtime New Orleans favorite Clancy’s. “This is all of these great, fresh fish from the Gulf of Mexico: speckled trout, pompano, red snapper, redfish, flounder, and the whole line.”
Hollingsworth said Creole culture was more saucy-focused than its Cajun counterpart. That is in large part due to the city’s ability to attract settlers from more cosmopolitan, sophisticated areas of France.
“They brought the French mother sauces that we really like at Clancy’s,” said Hollingsworth. “Bechamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise and Tomato. We use them to complement our local fish or meat. It is a combination of the use of the geographically available material and the techniques of the immigrant groups who came here.”
Cajun food, on the other hand, is known to be more rustic. It offers meat-heavy all-in-one-pot dishes like jambalaya and the rice-filled, tangy pork blood sausage known as boudin.
The Cajuns were also largely of French ancestry, but these French-influenced immigrants came from the hinterland of Acadia, Canada, rather than from the major cities of France. They were expelled from Canada by the British in 1755, and about 3,000 arrived in rural Louisiana, where they came into contact with German immigrants, Native Americans, and enslaved people – each with their own culinary influences.
“Cajun cuisine was more of a county seat while Creole cuisine was more of a city food,” said Toups, who grew up in the part of Louisiana known as Cajun Country, about two and a half hours west of New Orleans. “That’s because the Cajuns were French fur trappers, not French-trained chefs like you might find in town. As a poorer immigrant group, we had to add things to make our meals durable. Luckily there was tons of rice in the area, which is why you can find rice in our classics like Boudin, Jambalaya and Gumbo. “
Continuation of the evolution of a food
During the 19th and 20th centuries, thanks to improved communication and transportation methods, the two kitchens began to merge and inspire each other. They continued to be influenced by other groups
German immigrants, for example, brought their passion for sausages to the Cajun food, which helped create Louisiana’s famous flavorful andouille. But the next big addition to the local food and beverage scene came when nearly 300,000 Italian immigrants – most of them Sicilian – moved to the city between 1884 and 1924.
“If you look at stuffed peppers elsewhere, they are usually made with rice,” said Liz Williams, who will publish the book. Nana’s Creole Italian table in March 2022, “but in New Orleans our vegetables are filled with breadcrumbs. It’s an effect of the Sicilians who came here.”
Red sauce, the Creole adaptation of tomato sauce – similar to how the Creoles use a roux in gumbo as a thickener – and the introduction of shaved ice sno balls in New Orleans are other examples of the merging of New Orleans and Sicilian cuisine.
“In Sicily and many other European countries, it was common in the hotter months to walk up a mountain to collect snow that could be flavored with syrup for a summer treat,” said Williams. “In America, most places are more likely to use crushed ice for a frozen sorbet. However, New Orleans uses shaved ice because it mimics more of what our Sicilians knew back home. “
In the past few decades, Mexican immigrants have come to New Orleans to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They too have shaped their new home – not only in the kitchen, but also in the way it is served.
New Orleans is now littered with dozens of taco trucks that it didn’t have before the storm.
“Because the local ingredients are different here,” Williams explained, “the items sold are also sold. You won’t find fried oyster tacos in many places around the world, but you can find them in New Orleans.”
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Pots and pans in the kitchens of one of the most unique food cities in the world clatter with creations that cannot be found anywhere else. In the restaurant of two-time James Beard Award winner Alon Shaya, Saba, Louisiana Blue Crab is a local addition to a traditional Mediterranean hummus. Popular Indian restaurant Saffron NOLA adds curry seafood and basmati rice to the gumbo, Louisiana’s state dish.
And Dong Phuong Bakery, an institution founded in 1982 after thousands of Vietnamese refugees arrived in New Orleans after the Vietnam War, forever changed the attitudes of many residents about two of their most precious foods. Dong Phuong and her unique king cake – topped with cream cheese icing because bakery owner Huong Tran didn’t want her cake to be as sweet as the one with traditional frosting – is one of the most popular in town. Also, the bakery’s bread is sold by the thousands to restaurants across the city. The popular Louisiana po’boy sandwich is now often made with Vietnamese banh mi bread instead of the more Louisiana standard French bread.
“We came here as refugees without nothing, so of course we are so proud that our new home appreciates what we can add to the food here,” said Linh Tran Garza, president of Dong Phuong Bakery. “But our homeland also influences us constantly.”
Garza points to the emergence of Vietnamese Cajun cuisine as evidence that the two cultures are developing together.
“I think that’s a great thing. We should always pay attention to the community and see how we get better, give customers what they want or create new, great foods. “
Liz Williams said that New Orleans is particularly capable of this because of its past, perhaps more so than any other American city.
“I think it has to do with the fact that we were originally colonized by the French while the rest of America was colonized by the British,” she said. “The British have a way of doing things and have historically been less flexible. The French, however, are more curious and eager to prepare good food. They see it as an art and welcome new inspiration. The Creoles sought and welcomed this inspiration centuries ago, and I think our culture still does that today. “