Simply Cajun Cuisine
Louisiana's best chefs discuss creating the distinct southern flavors that are the essence of Cajun classics like gumbo and étouffée.
I was fishing with a friend one steamy early morning in southern Louisiana, when I suddenly understood Cajun food. We had glided for miles through channels in the green-gold marsh grass, then anchored our boat in a big, brackish lake. From the fishing boats I could see working the lake, I knew it must be brimming with shrimp, crabs and oysters. In between casts, I dipped my hand into the water and tasted it. It was salty as broth, brown as roux. I looked around, and in the shimmering light I had the momentary impression that I was bobbing atop a gargantuan bowl of gumbo.
I’ve spent years crisscrossing the continent in search of places where the land says loud and clear what to eat and the locals listen. I’ve smoked salmon over alder-wood fires in the Yukon Delta of Alaska and pressed wild apples into tingly cider with my Vermont neighbors, but I keep getting drawn back to Acadiana—the 22-parish, bayou-riddled region that stretches from just outside of New Orleans more than 200 miles west to the Texas border and south to the Gulf Coast—because nowhere else are the food, the place and the people so inseparable.
Cajun food is all about using what you’ve got and being joyful about it. That joyful part is a good thing, because the Cajuns—French settlers who arrived in the area in the 1700s after being kicked out of Canada’s Maritime Provinces by the British—didn’t have a whole lot. Everywhere they looked in south Louisiana, they saw water. The marshes were full of alligators, frogs and ducks, the bayous filled with shrimp and crabs, and the estuaries lined with miles of oyster reefs. Those all became the Cajun pantry. Instead of flour, they learned from the American Indians of the Gulf Coast to thicken their stews with filé, ground sassafras leaves. The Indians also taught them about corn, and then, in the 1900s, they discovered rice, the ideal grain for their wet world. Those semi-flooded rice fields doubled as crawfish ponds in the off-season, adding another pillar to America’s greatest indigenous cuisine.