The Commanders Palace owner discusses what exactly makes NOLA cuisine
When one thinks of Cajun or Creole cooking, what usually comes to mind? Perhaps simply "New Orleans," while some may think of Commander's Palace, and others wonder, "Aren't they the same thing?" There is a difference between Cajun and Creole cuisines, but perhaps less so today than before.
Those who conjure up the name Commander's Palace when they think of Louisiana cuisine have their minds in the right place. That's because Paul Prudhomme, who became the executive chef there in 1975, is largely credited with blurring the lines between the two cuisines when he gained notoriety for his infamously hot blackened seared fish, bringing his Cajun background to bear on Creole cuisine.
Both cuisines have their roots in France. Cajun cooking was developed by the Acadians, the original French settlers of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, who were displaced by the British in the 1700s and driven into present-day southwest Louisiana. Creole cooking, on the other hand, came from the descendants of well-to-do French and Spanish settlers of New Orleans, many of whom had brought cooks from Europe. For this reason, Cajun cooking is often characterized as "country cooking" while Creole cooking is characterized as "city cooking."
As one might expect, a key difference lies in the ingredients used in each cuisine, as each culture made use of what was available around them at the time. Crawfish, for example, figured prominently in Cajun cuisine because it was abundant in freshwater bayous, and pork is also in many Cajun dishes. Creoles, on the other hand, were able to take advantage of the bounty of the sea to bring in oyster, shrimp, crab, snapper, and pompano as well as the port in New Orleans to bring in ingredients from far-off regions, including okra, potatoes, tomatoes, and allspice. Hence, much of Creole cooking has European, African, Indian, and Caribbean influences. However, both cultures took what they knew — French technique — and applied it to what was available to them. That's probably why many dishes from both cuisines begin with "the Holy Trinity," a term probably first coined by Paul Prudhomme which refers to a mixture of green bell pepper, celery, and onion or scallion — with scallions being slightly more prevalent with Cajun cooking — that is based on the concept of mirepoix.
In general, Cajun cooking tends to be spicy, though not everything is spicy — a misconception fueled by the public's obsession with bottled hot sauces, which are an important part of Cajun cooking, but not the end-all and be-all. Cajun cooking's complex flavors stem from the use of many other spices and aromatics, including paprika, thyme, ground sassafras (filé powder), parsley, and scallions. On the other hand, Creole cooking is generally mild and tends to feature richer flavors of butter and cream. For example, a Creole roux is made the French way with equal parts butter and flour, while a Cajun roux is lighter, based on oil or crayfish fat and flour. In addition, Cajuns usually prepare a darker roux, letting the flour brown.
Much of the confusion, however, lies in the fact that each cuisine has its own version of some iconic Louisianan dishes, including gumbo and jambalaya. For example, Creole gumbo features tomatoes, brought by Italian immigrants to New Orleans, and is generally thinner, while Cajun gumbo is heartier like a stew because it relies more on roux, and is sometimes made without seafood, based on chicken or duck. However, all gumbo, whether Cajun or Creole, is always thickened either with okra or with filé powder (but never both).
So is there any hope of a clear definition? Perhaps one isn't needed. In New Orleans, for example, the two cuisines seem to have borrowed from each other heavily. Ti Martin, co-owner of Commander's Palace, sums it up neatly in her interview with The Daily Meal's video producer Ali Rosen, "New Orleans food isn't Southern food, and New Orleans food isn't Cajun food — New Orleans food is New Orleans and Creole, but the truth is Cajun and Creole kind of crashed here in the kitchen of Commander's Palace when Paul Prudhomme was the chef." And these days, it's not uncommon to see crawfish, which comes from Cajun country, on the menus of historically Creole restaurants in New Orleans. If that's not a sign that taste matters above all else, we're not sure what is.
Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.