10 Most Popular Cajun Foods in the Southern US
Louisiana has one of the most interesting collections of food influences across the United States, and Cajun food has gained notoriety internationally and is now regarded as some of the best in the world.
This hearty, rich food is known for its bold and spicy flavors and huge portions of protein. Here we explore some of the best Cajun dishes you can find throughout Louisiana and Southern US.
Defining Cajun Food
Louisiana is a historically unique state, often referred to as a “gumbo pot” of culture. Owned by the Spanish, then French, and majorly influenced by the huge amount of enslaved Africans that passed through the port city of New Orleans, the architecture, history, and local food has incorporated elements of all these cultures.
Cajun food specifically comes from the French Acadian population who were booted from Canada by the British and then settled in the southwestern area of Louisiana. Known for adapting their dishes to what was available locally, Acadian farmers adjusted their recipes to include rice, seafood, and bell peppers.
The “holy trinity” of onion, celery, and green bell peppers replaced the French mirepoix, crawfish replaced lobster, and exotic spices (at the time) such as cayenne and black pepper were incorporated.
Of course, the settlers were also influenced by the other populations in the area, so what you’ll find today is an amazing mix of food, taking the best ingredients and cooking techniques and combining them into some of the best dishes in the country.
Now let’s discover some of the most famous Cajun foods out there.
The first cold front after summer, even though only down from 100°F to 80°F, and it’s officially gumbo season! This “cold-weather” dish is a hearty, brothy delight.
It all starts with a roux, a Cajun and French food specialty. A roux is a mixture of a fat, usually butter, and flour, stirred on low heat until a brownish color develops. Then, a series of chef’s choice ingredients are added, starting, of course, with the holy trinity.
The best thing about gumbo for many people is the amazing combinations the dish allows. After the roux, the trinity, andouille sausage, and a scoop of rice is added. Then you can mix and match whatever ingredients you want. Usually, you’ll find either seafood or chicken gumbo and you’ll find fresh okra, too, when in season.
Like many things in Louisiana, everyone has their own opinion on how the dish should be done. The thickness of the broth, the color of the roux, and what proteins are are used are all heavily debated aspects of gumbo. But on a cold, rainy day in New Orleans, there’s nothing like a hot bowl of gumbo to warm you up.
2. Red Beans and Rice
Another Louisiana staple, and one that is, unfortunately, badly imitated throughout the world, is red beans and rice.
This is a Monday must in the state of Louisiana. Traditionally, Monday was laundry day. When women went down to the river to wash and dry clothes, they needed a simple dish that they could leave stewing all day.
Cooking red beans starts with cooking the trinity, then adding garlic, Cajun spice mix, bay leaves, and sausage. Once these are cooked down, red beans are added with stock and it is simmered for the entire day. Half the beans are mashed to create a creamy, thick consistency (not soupy!), and the dish is served with white rice.
If you’re visiting Louisiana, you can find red beans and rice on menus during the week, but usually, the best are found as Monday specials in Cajun or Creole restaurants.
Jambalaya is often confused with gumbo, but the two dishes are very different. The nearest similar dish is Spanish rice with a Creole twist.
Like so many Cajun dishes, jambalaya also starts with the trinity and, after softening, is joined by andouille sausage and chicken or seafood. There are two main differences between jambalaya and gumbo. First is the addition of crushed tomatoes, which is a sacrilegious ingredient for gumbo.
More importantly, jambalaya is more of a rice-heavy dish than a soup. The dish calls for rice to be added in with the main ingredients along with a stock of choice. The rice soaks up the delicious Cajun spices and smokiness from the andouille sausage.
4. Andouille Sausage
As one of the main components of many amazing Cajun dishes, andouille sausage deserves its own section. This smoked sausage is thought to have its roots in France or Germany, brought to Louisana by Acadians, where the dish was perfected.
What makes andouille so special is its unique spices and powerful flavor. It’s a coarse-grained sausage made with pork, onions, peppers, and Cajun seasoning. Smokey, spicy, and full of flavor, this sausage provides essential protein to so many popular dishes.
Andouille is added early to gumbo, red beans and rice, and jambalaya so the rest of the ingredients absorb its smokey, spicey flavors. But the sausage is often brought as its own dish to barbecues, game days, and other social gatherings, grilled or sautéed and served with coarse-grain mustard.
5. Boiled Crawfish
Crawfish are one of the most delicious, spicy, flavorful dishes you will find in Louisiana – when done right.
More than a dish, crawfish boils are social events. Special occasions, college or NFL football days, or just for the hell of it, Louisianians will look for any excuse to throw a crawfish boil. You’ll find jumbo silver pots of boiling water with citrus, crab boil, Cajun spices, full heads of garlic, and salt – lots of salt.
A traditional crawfish boil will have corn on the cob, potatoes, and andouille sausage thrown in the pot. However, throughout the years, locals have become more and more creative, with ingredients like full cans of green beans, Brussel sprouts, corned beef, and other components thrown in to soak up the fantastic flavors of the boil.
When the boil is done, the ingredients are strained and dumped over a newspaper-covered table and picked through by guests. Eating the crawfish takes a bit of patience, as you have to peel the tail to get to the juicy crawfish meat, but together with a cold local beer and good company, there’s not much better on a hot Louisianan afternoon.
Though you can mainly find crawfish at outdoor houseparties, there are restaurants that specialize in boils, such as Bevi or Clesie’s Seafood. During the crawfish season, around March until June, you can also find pop-ups at local bars, too.
Boudin is another special sausage unique to the southern state and can be linked back to the original Acadians who settled in Louisana.
The dish is considered the breakfast of champions, a dish workers and fishermen would grab early in the morning as a quick meal on the way to work or out at sea. The casing made this a portable meal, and the hearty ingredients were packed with protein and carbs, making them both filling and delicious.
Boudin is often smoked or grilled, though it also works well on its own. The stuffing is traditionally made from pork, onions, peppers, and Cajun seasonings, with the addition of cooked rice giving a bit of extra carbs for this morning dish.
As the sausage evolved, other delicious ingredients were included. Some include chicken or seafood, others are simply full of spicy peppers and onions.
You’ll typically find boudin’s quickly boiled at convenience stores throughout south Louisana, but it is best cooked over a grill. The thin casing gets a nice smoky flavor, and often cracks, leaving a ton of the stuffing oozing out for you to pick at.
7. Corn Maque Choux
The history of corn maque choux is debatable, but, like Louisiana in general, it’s probably accurate to say it includes influences from the different cultures that made their way through the state. Though the recipe is attributed to influence by the Cajuns, the dish probably has earlier roots from the Native Americans that lived in Louisana before European settlers came in.
Whatever the history, you’ll find this recipe on Cajun menus throughout Louisana, its simple ingredients providing a homey, sweet and spicy balance.
The dish starts with celery, onions, and red bell pepper cooked down in melted butter, giving rich colors and adding sweet, earthy flavors. Fresh corn is cut deep from the cob, which is also scraped to get the starchy corn juices out, and then added to the pan along with Cajun spices.
If the corn is a bit on the dry side, the chef adds milk or heavy cream to keep the creamy texture. Together, these ingredients are all cooked down and served as a side.
Of course, there are some great modifications to this dish that bring interesting flavors to the table. The corn can be grilled rather than boiled to add a smoky element. Thinly sliced bacon can be fried and then vegetables sautéed in the bacon fat for a bit of extra salty, fatty flavor.
Whatever is added to the dish, the final product is an amazing colorful, richly flavorful side that goes with so many main dishes.
8. King Cake
Cajun foods are often seasonal, based on fresh, local ingredients that are only available at certain times of the year. Though the ingredients of king cake are available all year round, this Mardi Gras special is only available at the start of Carnival, January 6th. In fact, king cake gets its name from the biblical story of the three kings, who brought baby Jesus gifts after his birth.
Hidden inside the delicious cake rests a small plastic baby representing the baby Jesus, a tradition that might seem quite bizarre, but if you find the baby in your slice, you know it’s your turn to buy the king cake for the next party.
The cake itself is made from a soft bread, which can be described as a mix of cinnamon roll and coffee cake. On the outside, the cake is iced with the colors of Mardi Gras, purple, green, and gold.
You can find the cake in its traditional form, with only the frosting and cinnamon providing the sweetness, or you can find the more decadent alternative that is stuffed with all kinds of delicious ingredients such as cream cheese, jam, and other amazing flavors.
Though the cake is only served during Mardi Gras season, you can still order tons of flavors from local bakeries that ship around the United States.
A dessert closely associated with a visit to New Orleans, beignets are French-style pastries. The beignet starts as square-shaped dough which is deep fried until puffed full of air, giving you a light, fluffy pastry. Though they’re served throughout the country and known around the world, they’re most common in the French Quarter.
Don’t wear black when you visit any of the Cafe du Monde locations in New Orleans, as these pastries are topped with a generous pile of powdered sugar that gets all over the clothes of even the most veteran beignet eater.
Though a simple dish, this pastry is a staple of New Orleans, and goes amazingly with cafe au lait – coffee with steamed milk.
Recently, Louisianians have experimented with beignet fillings. Some include sweet ingredients such as fruit jam, chocolate, and others. But, interestingly, some restaurants, such as Get Stuph’d in New Orleans, offer delicious savory fillings such as crawfish and cheese or hot sausage.
Though pralines were introduced to New Orleans by the French, they were brought by Ursuline nuns not the Acadians. These sweet delicacies were a part of marriage tradition, as the nuns would teach women how to cook them from scratch as preparation for family life.
The traditional recipe for pralines was a mixture of lots of sugar, vanilla, and almonds, which were ground into a paste and shaped into a cookie. Like other Cajun foods on this list, the recipe was adjusted to incorporate local ingredients.
Cajun pralines use brown sugar, cream, a pinch of salt, and the key substitute, pecans. Pecans are a popular nut in southern cooking, especially in sweets, as their sweet, buttery flavor pairs perfectly with sugar and other traditional sweet spices.
Though Cajun pralines are shaped like cookies, their consistency is more like a hard fudge or marzipan. This dessert is a creamy, caramelized coating perfectly balanced by the crunchy butteriness of pecans.
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