To eat in Louisiana is to be transported to many regions and to understand the rise of fall of nations in spoonfuls of innovative and delicious food.
There are two Louisianas: the northern and the southern. Just like the North and the South, the areas are radically different. Even though all of Louisiana celebrates Mardi Gras, the southern part has a certain je ne sais quoi, which also shows in its cuisine. So good, it makes you say a local favorite after eating, hence the title, meaning “I ate well, dear.”
If you have dabbled in Fat Tuesday or decide to take a trip to the vibrant-yet-syrupy southern state, here are some culinary items I dare you to try. And here is a little reminder, Louisiana does not start or stop in New Orleans. Yes indeed, it is a beautiful city that holds some of the most brilliant chefs and culinary histories, but let me show you some more.
Crawfish is king
Unlike other parts of the south, Louisiana’s cash crop was not cotton, it was sugar and to some degree, rice. When you travel throughout the state, especially in the southern part, you will ride along old sugar cane fields and mills, including rice patches. As a result, the cuisine dictates itself from it.
About a month before harvesting rice fields have been harvested, farmers discovered a way to re-nourish the soil and make more money. They brought in crawfish roe from the Atchafalaya River. Crawfish, the freshwater cousins to lobsters often run smaller in size. The crawfish eggs are added to rice fields then hatched and harvested from about January to July.
Where I’m from, in low country Georgia and Carolinas, we have crab boils. In Louisiana, they have crawfish boils where pounds of the little critters are salted then seasoned some more, and boiled in a huge cooking pot. To add flavor and sustenance to the meal, because crawfish meat is tiny, cooks add corn, potatoes and even andouille sausage or a local favorite, boudin.
Crawfish boils are communal cooking and eating. Boys are taught by their fathers on how to prep the crawfish. When eating, you learn how to crack the red crustacean then pluck out the meat. If you are adventurous or a pro, then suck the head for the juices from the crawfish.
A popular dish from crawfish is étouffée, a sauce with celery, onions, garlic and other ingredients that provides layered texture, telling the history of the mixed cultural and culinary traditions in the area. If the sauce is red, it’s Creole or more of an African base. If the sauce is white, it is Cajun with a French-German influence. Fittingly, crawfish étouffée is served over rice.
Rice, rice baby
There are two rice dishes that will get you in trouble. One is jambalaya, and other is called, “dirty rice,” the Creole version of rice dressing. Jambalaya is a rice dish filled with chicken, seafood and andouille sausage. Similar to a tomato-based paella, it is one of Louisiana’s famous one-pot dishes where food is layered into the pot gradually, giving it a complex taste. Jambalaya shows the melange of French, Spanish and African culture as it borrows from a range of influences and techniques.
Often dirty rice is referred to as rice dressing, but it takes on a more complex process to make. Rice dressing is dry, but dirty rice is moist and nuanced in flavorings.
For dirty rice, first, chicken livers are seasoned then boiled until tender. Once cooked, they are mashed by hand to create a pâté. Next, ground beef is cooked in celery, onions and garlic. Some people fold into the dish pork to add moisture and fat because the chicken and beef dry out. After the meat is prepared, it is gradually rolled into rice, more chopped herbs and bits of green onions. There are only a few people I know who can make it where the rice dish remains moist and delicious. By the way, the homemade version is way better than the version at Popeye’s Chicken, but I digressed.
Red beans and rice is a staple in many areas around the world, but baby, no one makes them like they do in Louisiana. Prepared with a ham hock or andouille sausage bits, cooks soak then season red beans, along with dropping in green bells peppers, onion and celery. Unlike the Jamaican version of red beans and rice, in Louisiana, the dish is saucy or wet. As well, the beans top rice after cooking until the dish is creamy and the beans tender until they melt in your mouth.
Often cooked for a Sunday or Monday dish for families, red beans and rice stretch over a couple of days. As well, it is a hardy meal for cold winter days or long laboring hours. Plus, it is a dish easy to cook when you’re taking care of chores around the home. Trust me, red beans and rice are best eaten with scratch cornbread cooked in an iron skillet.
Sausage on my mind
Traditionally, andouille sausage is a pork or pork and ground beef sausage seasoned with a local concoction of herbs and spices specific to the region. However, as the sausage process evolves, now there are chicken and turkey versions. Andouille is the staple meat that you will find in a range of dishes. Because much of the cuisines are one-pot specials such as stews, boils and rice dishes, similar to the Spanish paella, andouille is an easy way to add flavor and texture.
Earlier, I mentioned boudin pronounced [boo-dan]. Boudin is sausage deriving from Germany but perfected in Louisiana. It is a mixture of pork, beef, rice, herbs and accenting vegetables like celery that are cooked then seasoned and, lastly, stuffed into a pork sausage casing.
The color of boudin ranges. If it’s reddish-brown or darker that signifies that blood was used in the base. Sounds nasty, but it is a delicious delicacy.
Now let me warn you, boudin is like gumbo. Everybody cannot make it, but it’s worth the try. I advise you to go to a small-town butchery to get boudin because in Louisiana they still make it and serve daily. In the country and smaller cities, butchering is a time-honored tradition and profession, so treat the butcher with respect.
Gumbo yaya and all its moving parts
You cannot go to Louisiana without tasting one of the many versions of gumbo. A dish emerging from the Gulf coast, and popular from Louisiana, it is more than thick soup and nothing like French bouillabaisse emphasizes Chef Wanda Blake of San Francisco.
There are differences between New Orleans gumbo and Louisiana gumbo, as well as in how recipes and ingredients can distinguish location and class ties. Some come with chicken and sausage (poor folk) versus those with seafood (NOLA folk), and in some cases, rabbit and squirrel meat to designate the more inland country folk.
According to Blake in an Instagram post, “It is, in its essence, an African dish.”
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Gumbo Chronicles – the word, the root The word Gumbo is a word that vibrates your – taste, smell, visual and memory. The word Gumbo is derived from the Angola word for Okra – “ki-ngumbo”. I was in Lagos Nigeria, and Mamabola served me a bowl of soup. The first spoonful hit my senses – taste, smell, memory. The taste was deep in my memory but what was it doing in Nigeria? “Mamabola, what is this soup”? She said it was Draw Soup. Ok – a couple more spoonful’s and I’m bugging because I know this flavor but I can’t grab it. The next spoon and I got it – Gumbo. It taste like gumbo. But where was my shrimp, crab, sausage, chicken, roux and okra? “Mamabola, how did you make this soup?” “I chop real small the Okuro (okra), add onion, smoke fish, seasonings and water and cook it down”. I said, “Mamabola this taste just like a dish back home called Gumbo”. Wow, discovering a real root of my food culture was a wonderful experience. I know there are people who don’t like Okra and make Gumbo without it –I can make you Gumbo without Okra. But for me Gumbo is Okra and Okra is Gumbo. See ya at the table.#gumbo #okragumbo #okra #drawsoup #okrasoup #nigeria #lagos #gumbopopup #wandascooking #wandascookingpassionforfood #okuro #soup
Not yo mama’s poppers
Still riding high off of pork, a local snack that I warn you eat sparingly is cracklin’ or fried pig skins. Different than pork rinds, cracklin’ are thicker, crunchy pieces with moisture to them. The juicy pork bits are best hot from the fryer.
You can only find a proper serving of cracklin’ at a butcher because it is the thick skin left over from a hog slaughter. The cracklin’ is fresh and off of the chopping block, literally. Here’s a tip, if it’s served to you in a paper bag then you’re probably in the right place. Cracklin’ is definitely one you must hunt for because it is a dying cuisine.
On the topic of mouth poppers, you haven’t lived unless you ate alligator tail. Yes, I did not stutter.
When prepared correctly and the tough meat broken down, alligator meat tastes better than chicken. There are several parts you can eat from an alligator, but the inner piece of the tail has two tenderloins, considered to be the “filet mignon” of the gator. A cuisine given to us by Native folk, it is best served seasoned and fried. While alligators are plenty in Louisiana, the meat is a luxury.
A hero ain’t nothin’ but a sandwich, but in Louisiana some bread and meat give life
Bump hoagies when in Louisiana. The sandwich staple are po’boys or French loaves. A mini-baguette stuffed with meat and topped with lettuce, tomato and mayo, po’boys are usually made with fried crawfish, shrimp or chicken and grilled sausage. Even, I’ve had it with catfish, another sumptuous swamp water local delicacy.
In New Orleans’ French Quarter, po’boys are called, La Médiatrice, or “the peacemaker.” Often a huge sandwich traditionally shared or eaten in increments, make sure a bed is nearby for some good full-belly sleep after consumption.
Although Louisiana touts French, Spanish and German influences, there were several waves of poor Italian immigrants from southern Italy who came to the northernmost Latin American bloc of culture. Much of the Italians settled along the Louisiana Gulf coast and worked the ports, thus were often involved in importing and exporting goods.
With that, they brought the muffuletta sandwich, a sliced meat in a sesame-bread. The muffuletta comes from Sicily, the southern island of the coast of Italy. Another contribution by Italian immigrants is the importation of olive oil to the region to substitute the use of pig lard when cooking.
While we focus much on the stewed dishes in Louisiana, you cannot overlook their fried chicken. Only in Louisiana will you see bits of herbs in batter whipped up in one of the complex taste profiles with chicken fried to perfection; hence Popeye’s undying popularity.
I started with the sugar cane fields of Louisiana, so I will end in those fields with some sweetened dishes and desserts from the region.
Molasses is a staple in Louisiana homes. It is the thick liquid after the refining process of sugar cane. Once it is dried, it becomes sugar granules. Drizzled on biscuits, toast or used as a sweetener for deserts, coffee or preserving fruits, the thicker and darker the syrup, the danker the taste.
One food dish that uses molasses is lost bread, a version of French toast. French bread is cut then soaked in condensed milk, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and egg batter then placed on the grill. Once finished, drizzle the crispy bread with molasses. Serve that with chicory coffee and bacon, and voila.
Another way molasses has been traditionally implemented in cuisine is in fig preserves, although molasses is sugar cane syrup. Throughout the southern Louisiana landscape, fig trees are prevalent and grow well in the climate. Once harvested, to keep the fruit, preserves are made and eaten until the next crop. From the preserves, pies, snacks and cookies come from the fig. They are also smashed between buttered biscuits for a comforting breakfast.
The most well-known sweet is the beignet, a fried dough with powdered sugar. Beignets range from the fluffy light concoction popularized by New Orleans’ Cafe du Monde or the traditional beignet that is denser and resembles more of a cake donut. Beignets are more of a morning snack and sometimes eaten for breakfast rather than seen as a desert. It is often served with the common coffee of the area that is peppered with chicory to give it a subtle zing.
Figs often are left out of Louisiana food, but when fig trees bloom, the fat fruit serves as the star in pie fillings and preserves.
A Creole treat best made by hand are pralines, a simple recipe of sugar, condensed milk and pecans. Brought to the region by French settlers, the skill is whipping the candy in a way that removes the bubbles and chalkiness of the sugar. Expert praline makers over the years have added spices to it such as vanilla or even rum to give it another layer. Warning, this is not the hard peanut brittle. Well-made pralines are small drops that melt in your mouth rather than break your teeth. If someone makes you praline that means they love you.
Another dessert featuring pecans is pecan pie, a wonderful mixture of pecans, spices and corn syrup. Corn is another crop big in Louisiana. The filling is placed on pie dough then cooked and cooled to set the inside. Yes, this is diabetes in a pan if eaten regularly, but a small piece from an old grandmother in Grand Coteau puts your mind at ease.
Speaking of pies, you ever heard of teacake pies? Bearing a resemblance to empanadas, teacake pies are baked and sweet rather than fried and savory like its Latin American cuisine cousin. The star of this dish is not the filling, it is the confectionary, vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon dough gently rolled out to a medium-skinned crust then filled with various fruits. The favorite is apple, but taste the ones with figs. Mmmmm.
So let’s get back to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and I also mean the whiskey. New Orleans sugar cane fields produced some of the smoothest, high-quality rums, vodka, gin and even whiskey. Matter of fact, all of the popular wineries, cognacs, champagnes and sparkling wines grew their empire off the backs of Caribbean and Louisiana sugar cane fields. Remember that the next time you sip.
However, the famous bananas foster and bread pudding in Bourbon sauce comes from New Orleans. A NOLA original, banana fosters is sauce made from butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, dark rum, and banana liqueur that is poured over bananas then cooked in a flambé. Many different versions of bread pudding are made around the country, but the butter and bourbon sauce poured over crispy, sweetened cake-like chunks make Louisiana bread pudding an experience.
There are some more items that I can talk to you about such as King Cake and Hurricanes, but the sugar rush from writing this has made me high. I hope you took a mental note of these dishes for when you go to Louisiana. Oh one more thing, stay out of the tourist traps, they overcharge and the food can be an uninteresting representation of the culinary tradition found in the region.
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