Cajun/Creole food culture is steeped in tradition and the influences of its heritage. Let’s start with the language of Acadiana. You will find many new and sometimes confusing terms that will both baffle and intrigue. Most are Cajun-derived terms based on traditional French and some are just plain unexplainable. Either way, the language of food in Acadiana is most colorful, and lots of fun to figure out. Here’s a taste sample:
Étouffée (ay too fay) is the crown jewel (along with gumbo) of South Louisiana dishes and one of the simplest. By language translation, it means “smothered”, but to translate this recipe into a proper Cajun/Creole stew takes a deft hand and lots of seasoned experience. The most familiar version is Crawfish Étouffée, but shrimp is quite common as well. I’ve found that the best étouffée is usually discovered, not in the fancy restaurants, but rather in the least likely back road cafes and lunchrooms of Acadiana. Try the plate lunch étouffée at Poche’s meat market just north of Breaux Bridge. And read my story and recipe for Classic Crawfish Étouffée here.
Andouille (ahn do ee) is a building block of the cuisine. To say it is simply a spicy pork sausage smoked in a casing totally understates its role as a foundation for many great Cajun and Creole dishes. It is sold everywhere, and it is unquestionably the most used of all Cajun sausages as a seasoning ingredient. My favorite is found at Don’s in Carencro, but many other smokehouses have outstanding versions. I always use andouille in my Smoked Rabbit and Duck Gumbo recipe here.
Sauce Piquant or Piquante (sos pee con) is a Cajun/Creole dish featuring a tomato base. Most good camp cooks like to make this dish and cut the rich tomato flavor with a dark roux. A typical sauce piquant is always highly seasoned and is usually built around a wild game ingredient like alligator or turtle. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a heaping bowl full of snapping turtle sauce piquant.
Tasso (tah so) is a dried and smoked piece of pork used much like ham in cooking. It is highly spiced with cayenne pepper and garlic, and while fully cooked, it is usually used only as an ingredient in another dish. When I go to Best Stop I load up on their tasso, one of the best in Acadiana. Tasso is a key ingredient in my recipe for Shrimp and Artichoke Fettuccine here.
Cochon de Lait (coo shawn duh lay) refers to a suckling pig roast. Translated, “milk pig” means that this is a young pig still attached to the sow’s milk and thus, perfect for roasting on a spit. Many restaurants across Louisiana are now featuring cochon de lait dishes on their menus, many of which are from slow roasted pork butts versus the whole pig. Still good, but somehow misses the point of tradition.
Jambalaya (jam buh lye uh or jum buh lye uh) is a rice dish of Spanish influence interpreted first in the Caribbean and then reinterpreted by Cajun and Creole cooks as a spicy mixture of Louisiana ingredients. In the city, tomatoes (Creole version) are a key part of a jambalaya with the rural Cajun version eliminating them. These days, both versions are acceptable on the Acadiana table with shellfish, chicken, pork, sausage and sometimes wild game as a key ingredient. Variations are endless, but white rice is always at the base.
Fricassée (freek ah say) is a long, slow simmered stew that produces an unmistakable gravy. Usually chicken or older hen or rooster, a fricassée renders a tough old bird tender after a two-hour braise in stock and vegetables thickened with a dark roux. There are many other variations, like my favorite Meatball Fricassée, which is found on plate lunch menus throughout Acadiana. And you can get my recipe for Mamou Meatball Fricassée here.
Roux (roo) is the foundation of many Cajun dishes and is a classic French technique of blending flour and fat. The French use butter and flour as a thickener for delicate cream-based dishes. Cajuns, however, take the roux-making several steps further. By stirring flour and oil together until it cooks, changes color and takes on a nutty depth of flavor, roux becomes a defining ingredient of Cajun cooking. Different shades of darkness in roux are featured in varying dishes depending on the degree of richness needed in the dish. Terms like blonde roux, peanut butter roux and chocolate roux connote the different stages of roux-making. “First you make a roux” is an often used saying about learning to cook Cajun. With new commercial dry and jarred rouxs on the market, the roux-making art is quickly dying off. While good in a pinch, there is no substitute for a well-made scratch roux. My wife is the roux-making queen and you can discover her secrets at Rox’s Roux here.
Filé (fee lay) is a Cajun/Creole powdered seasoning made from dried and ground sassafras leaves, not the root, as many believe. Filé is used pretty much exclusively in gumbo and provides an earthy, umami taste. Earlier in culinary history, filé was used as a thickener instead of okra or roux, but these days the ground leaves are used most often for enhancing flavor. Filé is found on most any Louisiana grocery shelf. Buy it in small quantities since, like most spices, filé loses its punch over time.
Au gratin (oh grot ten or oh grah tan) is a casserole dish seen throughout Louisiana in upscale Creole city versions and down home rural Cajun. The two variations in pronunciation are usually reflective of the French authenticity of where you happen to be dining. From potatoes to crabmeat, the key is a topping of cheesy breadcrumbs browned and bubbling. Don’s Seafood Hut in Lafayette has a spectacular crabmeat au gratin.
Boudin (boo dan), I believe, is literally the link to discovering Cajun food. Once you’ve tried it, and you like it, you now understand the cuisine of Acadiana. Pork, rice, liver, onions, and spices cooked down and stuffed into a hog casing and then steamed. With its down-home humility and humble appearance, in the right hands, it is a mysterious and complicated culinary masterpiece. But, no two boudin are alike, so try them all, and then you can join the age-old debate on the “best boudin.” Boudin is sold everywhere – corner stores, groceries, restaurants, bars, and yes, even gas stations. Fill ‘er up and give me a link for the road. Read the story and my boudin recipe here.
Maque choux (mock shoe) is a Native American recipe – usually a side dish – featuring corn. Cajun/Creole cuisine has adapted this into a main dish with crawfish and shrimp being the most common upscale additives, but the base is always corn. Most quality recipes use fresh corn shucked off the ear with the silky corn milk helping to up the flavor profile. Diced tomatoes (Rotel is an acceptable shortcut) along with bell pepper and onions are sautéed in butter. A heavy hand of spices, and sometimes a bit of cream, are added to define that unique corn maque choux flavor.
Bisque (bisk) is a rich soup elevated to center-of-the-plate status. In the city, bisque is usually cream based with rich ingredients such as oyster & artichoke or crab & asparagus. In the countryside of Acadiana, those dishes are common as well, but dark, roux-based crawfish bisque with stuffed heads is as common. You usually cannot go wrong when you see a bisque on the menu. Get my recipe for Crawfish and Pumpkin Bisque here.
Mirliton (merl uh tawn), sometimes pronounced mel e tawn, is a green pear-shaped squash used in many Cajun and Creole dishes. Mostly stuffed with crab or shrimp dressing, mirliton is seen often on holiday tables. Technically a chayote squash, the vegetable has its roots in Latin America. Over the years, mirliton have found a prominent place in Acadiana cuisine.
Boucherie (boo shuh ree) is a time-honored Cajun tradition of bringing families together for the butchering of a whole hog. Before refrigeration, a large pig could not be consumed before spoiling, so the village came together to butcher and cook the various parts into roasts, cracklin’, hogs head cheese, sausage, salt pork, tasso, lard, bacon, ribs and the like. The boucherie is now a common celebration in the small towns of Acadiana with Le Grand Boucherie des Cajuns festival in St. Martinville being one of the largest.
Courtbouillon (coo bee yon) is a classic Cajun and Creole fish dish featuring tomatoes along with the trinity of vegetables and a good seafood stock. Redfish, usually cooked whole, is traditional, but catfish and even lesser fish like gar and gaspergou are typical in rural home cooking. It’s old-school and rarely seen in restaurants these days, but if you do see it listed, order a double portion.
Pain perdu (pan pare dew) is French for “lost bread” — the Louisiana version of French toast. And this dish is steeped in historical meaning and cultural significance for the Acadiana table. For early French-speaking Cajun settlers living off the land in the farmland of South Louisiana, baking bread was a way of life. Those who excelled at the art took pride, and soon bakeries flourished with artisan-made loaves of French bread always the specialty of the house. No one wasted a thing in those days, and day-old French loaves were the building blocks of savory stuffings, custardy bread puddings and most unique of all, pain perdu.
Chaurice (sha reese) is a spicy South Louisiana sausage used often in gumbo and other dishes seeking a depth of flavor and heat. Some say it is akin to Spanish chorizo, but other than the name, they are quite different. I’ve seen it both smoked and raw. Either way, it is tasty and can be found in many rural markets and smokehouses throughout Acadiana.
Rémoulade (rim-a-lod or rom-a-lod) is a cold sauce preparation. While classic French, the Louisiana version is infused with lots of spicy flavors; you can’t make a respectful rémoulade without horseradish and Creole mustard. There are many variations: From the classic white rémoulade of the fine Creole restaurants of the French Quarter to a spicier Cajun version seen along the bayou, mayonnaise is most always at the base. While shrimp rémoulade is the standard dish, I am seeing more creative versions featuring fried green tomatoes and asparagus popping up on local menus.
Beignet (ben-yay or ban-yay): In most instances this is a sweet breakfast or dessert dish of lighter-than-air fried pastries or square doughnuts. Usually sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with cafe au lait. However, it is not uncommon to see savory fried pastry versions (usually stuffed with crawfish) in trendy restaurants. Stop by Poupart’s French Bakery in Lafayette for hot beignets and coffee most every morning.
Couche Couche (coosh coosh): Not to be confused with Mediterranean couscous, this is a very rural Cajun breakfast dish made from cornmeal and usually combined with milk and sugarcane molasses. French Acadian farm families love their couche couche much like grits are favored throughout the Deep South. This dish is rarely seen in restaurants, but go to any Louisiana high school football game and you’ll hear a familiar cheer… “Hot Boo-Dan, Cold Coosh Coosh, Come on Cajuns, Poosh, Poosh, Poosh.”
Panéed (pa nayed) in the Cajun parlance is simply a pan sautéed dish – usually thinly sliced chicken, veal or pork with a sauce. Sometimes a dredge in egg wash and flour or breadcrumbs adds a crisp coat to the dish, but not always. As is the case with many Cajun culinary terms, variations abound. In my experience, if you see something panéed on a menu, order it. It’s most always tasty.