Creole And Cajun: Eating Louisiana Style
The food of Southern Louisiana is the oldest and most broadly developed cuisine in the United States. By the early 1800s, there were already enough established Creole and Cajun dishes that books were being written about them.
Those two main Louisiana styles resemble the regional cuisines of Europe more than any other American cookery. Traveling the one hundred miles between New Orleans and Lafayette will show the same differences in the local food that you'd find in Italy or France.
The reason is obvious. Instead of starting out with a British culture, Louisiana grew from French roots. And not in an uncivilized way, either. New Orleans was a prosperous town almost from the outset, and its better-off citizens wanted their cooking to be as interesting as what could be had back in the mother country.
By the time the first restaurants opened in New Orleans, the city was part of the United States. But the menus were decidedly French. But they were also Creole, using ingredients and techniques unheard of in France. A new cuisine was born.
The Cajuns were different people with a different story. But the end result was approximately the same: a distinctive cuisine with obvious French grounding, but unique local ingredients and flavors.
Both Creole and Cajun cooking began to spread into adjoining parts of the South, particularly after World War II. (Both styles were and still are sharply different from Southern cooking, including the way people in north Louisiana eat.) Cajun and Creole cooks inevitably came in contact with one another. And that's when the controversy began:
What's the difference between Cajun and Creole?
When asked this, I give three answers. Pick the one you like. Forget about settling the matter once and for all. Let alone deciding which is better.
1. There is no real difference anymore. The two cuisines have cross-pollinated each other so thoroughly that the question is academic. And they're both dominated by the same superb seafood.
2. Creole food is genteel city food, and Cajun food is rustic country food. But both have French dish names and similar ingredients. So it's just a matter of location and appearances.
3. There's a big difference, and it shows up in the Cajun and Creole versions of particular dishes. Creole jambalaya is usually made with shrimp and seafood, red with tomato. Cajun jambalaya is meaty, smoky, and brown. Creole gumbo: seafood, light roux, brothy texture. Cajun gumbo: meats (even game), smoke, high pepper level, dark roux, thick consistency. Creole crawfish etouffee: light roux, a bit of tomato, mildly spicy lots of green onions. Cajun crawfish etouffee: dark roux, thick, very spicy. You can't find much real Cajun food in New Orleans, and you can't find much Creole food in Lafayette.
There's one other difference, but it's just an uh-huh sort of thing. Creole food has been spreading eastward for rather a long time (over a century). Cajun food is conquering regions to the west and north, well into Texas and north Louisiana. That has been especially true in the last thirty years.
The finer points of Creole and Cajun cuisines are explored elsewhere on this site, here:
Louisiana Restaurants By Category