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 certainly cuisines may blend well together, but should be appreciated for their distinctions. Here’s how to tell them apart:
On the surface, the simplest way to discern between the two is 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.
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 but 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.
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Cajun history has perhaps a few more twists and turns than the relatively New Orleans-centric Creole culture. The word and 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 within it cultural subgroups, Cajuns too are often able to trace their heritage back to distinct communities based on the primarily rural area of Louisiana that they resettled in.
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 turned 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. Every bit of the pig is used during such an event.
Rillons (candied pork belly) and head cheese (meat jelly made from, well, 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 cracklings, odd strips of meat into smoked jerky. 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, but, 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.
And there you have it!