French dishes and methods of cooking are combined with flavours from Africa and the Caribbean incorporating ingredients like chilli peppers, paprika, rice and okra. It is rustic and simple in comparison to its more elegant cousin Creole – which was the cuisine of the more affluent Franco-American upper class. Do not confuse them – people get pretty mad about it.
Cajun dishes focus on cheap cuts of meat, cheap fish and will not waste a thing with a thrifty use of offal and offcuts. There is a strong sense of community in cooking and eating in this part of the world too, and many of its most famous dishes revolve around cooking large quantities for family and friends to share.
Cajun spice is made up of garlic, paprika, black pepper, cayenne, thyme, oregano and red pepper flakes. These flavours are at the very heart of everything in Cajun cuisine and are used in the way that we would use salt & pepper. Nothing in this part of the world is going to hit the grill without a tremendously big sprinkling of these flavours.
You will have tasted Cajun spice before, I am sure probably on some fried chicken or shaken over some fries as a lazy afterthought to make it sound a bit special, but I do assure there is so much more than soggy chips to Cajun food.
Cajun cooking is all about pig. They enjoy pork in all ways, shapes and forms and they love nothing more than getting together on a Saturday afternoon and roasting an entire hog. This is commonly referred to as a Family Boucherie and is something you will see all over Louisiana as a ceremonial event.
They tuck into the juicy pork in sandwiches – and if you want a taste of this try Porky Pigs Street Food over on Cooper Street- but this is just the start of it. Thrifty Cajuns are known for wasting as little as possible when it comes to meat, so they use the entire animal. They make head cheese (Google it and try not to vom), from the bones and head, but the most famous bi-product would be Boudin or sausage.
This comes in two varieties Boudin blanc (soft white sausage) which uses the leftover meat, with fat, green onions and spices and Boudin Noir (blood sausage). If you like black pudding, this is the one for you. It has more of a sausage-like texture than we are used to, and it goes in so many Cajun dishes. You can give it a go on the breakfast menu over at Cote Brasserie, which comes with streaky bacon, scrambled egg and toasted brioche in true pseudo-French style.
One of the dishes which utilises this no-waste sausage would be Jambalaya – a rice dish cooked with meat, sausage and sometimes shrimp. Now, the inclusion of tomatoes in this dish technically makes it Creole (tomatoes were considered a luxury), but its frugal nature and flavours puts it in a delicious grey area which I have no problem with at all.
Its base is the ‘holy trinity’ of Cajun ingredients green peppers, onion and celery with stock, spices and whatever meat you can get your hands on- even alligator. This is cooked in one pot with rice to create a simple, spicy meal which can satisfy many hungry bellies. You can find it at Panama Hatty’s in Prestwich – I really did try and find somewhere a bit closer I really did – so it might be a better idea to cook up my favourite Jambalaya recipe instead (alligator optional.)
It is safe to say that this part of the world is pretty sausage and shellfish-centric, as well as having a sense of community at its heart. Like the Boucherie, the practice of a Crawfish Broil is something which brings people together over their love of food. Crawfish is one of those Americanism for what we call Crayfish over here across the pond. We find them in posh Pret sandwiches, but the reality of it is that these little crustaceans are filthy freshwater creatures who love to live in dirty habitats – think, swamps, ditches, and even canals.
Louisiana is literally crawling with the things in the dirty, muddy waters of the bayou and you can buy bags of them for next to nothing. Do not worry; they are perfectly safe to eat and delicious when cooked up in a steaming bowl with lots of spices, sausage, potato and corn as they do with a Crawfish Broil.
Another famous fish dish from Louisiana would be Gumbo. This dish is somewhere between a soup and a stew made with a dark roux made with pig fat and flour to thicken. This roux is, in theory, a little bit burnt which gives the dish a nutty flavour and a deep, dark colour.
Typically it is made with seafood (shrimp, crawfish, catfish) but can also include chicken and sausage. It almost always includes bell peppers, garlic, chilli peppers and okra which was brought over from Africa by the slave trade. This dish is an excellent example of the marriage of cultures in the food of Louisiana as it takes the French Bouillabaisse (fish soup) and combines it with African spices and ingredients and the cheapest of seafood to create something unique. You can give it a go at Henry C’s in Chorlton.
Another Cajun classic would be the Shrimp Po’ Boy. This is a fried shrimp sandwich which takes inspiration from Spanish cuisine- another nod to Cajun multiculturalism. It can be whatever filling really as long as it is deep fried (meat, oysters, crawfish, catfish crab) but is mostly typically battered shrimp which is tossed in spicy seasoning and served in a French baguette.
If you want an authentic experience I would go for the one at Bunny Jacksons – it comes dressed up with dill pickles, hot sauce, mayo, lettuce and tomato. Or if you want to be schmancy, you can tuck into the Lobster Po’ Boy from Randall & Aubin.
Cornbread is a food which is signature to most of the Southern U.S states and is particularly common alongside a hot plate of Gumbo in Louisiana. It goes back to Cherokee Indians and is perhaps one of the few examples of Native American cuisine that has survived in the United States.
It is made from corn flour which gives it a unique yellow hue and baking powder as the raising agent. This makes it somewhere between a cake and bread (no yeast is used), and it is much quicker to cook. It is moist, fluffy, flavourful and the perfect thing to mop up any extra sauce. You can get a lovely slab of Tray Baked Cornbread over at Red’s True Barbeque, which is an ideal accompaniment to their signature 14-hour pulled pork.
You can’t get these in Manchester (trust me, I’ve looked), but I am going to talk about Beignet anyway. I first discovered beignets after watching Disney’s fantastic musical adaptation of The Princess and the Frog which is set in New Orleans. Even in cartoon form, they looked delicious, so I made it my life’s work to find out what they were and where I could yam them.
I successfully sniffed them out like a truffle pig in London and discovered that they are a deep-fried square of choux pastry which is dusted with a liberal dose of powdered sugar. They are best eaten as a cure for a morning hangover over in Louisiana and are just itching to be paired with a hot black coffee. The only thing I can compare them too is a really light doughnut, so I am going to point you in the direction of the Plain Sugared Doughnut from Siop Shop which is the next best thing.