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:
Amandine (AH-mahn-deen) – a French Creole sauce used in fish preparation featuring a basic Meunière sauce (butter, lemon, and herbs) infused with slivered toasted almonds. A Southern variation is to use pecans instead of almonds. This dish is a top seller at Galatoire’s in New Orleans.
Andouille (ahn DOO 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 Poche’s north of Breaux Bridge, but many other smokehouses have outstanding versions.
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.
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.
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.
Blackened is a method of cooking introduced in the 1980s by celebrated Chef Paul Prudhomme. A native son of Opelousas located in Acadiana, the Creole chef’s dish isn’t part of traditional Cajun cooking. His blackened red fish specialty (and variations) is now seen in restaurants throughout the nation and features a fillet of fish coated with spices and quickly seared at a high temperature in a cast-iron skillet coated with butter. The key is to quickly flash sear the fish and seal the coating before the butter burns. Unless you have a commercial-grade vent over your stove, I recommend cooking this recipe outdoors.
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.
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.
Bread Pudding – a traditional Louisiana dessert made from French bread that is a way for home cooks and restaurant chefs to use leftover loaves. The bread is broken up, soaked in a seasoned custard mixture, and baked until golden brown. The dish is almost always served with an alcohol-based (rum or whiskey) cream sauce. A variation seen in rural Cajun country is one that uses day-old doughnuts.
Café au Lait (caf-AY-oh-LAY) literally means “coffee with milk” and is a Louisiana classic blend of strong chicory coffee and hot milk. Café du Monde in the New Orleans French Quarter is famous for their Café au lait and Beignets. In rural Cajun country, children are raised on this blend–simply called coffee milk–which is one reason Louisiana has one of the highest coffee consumption rates in America.
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.
Chicory (CHICK o ree) is an herbal root that is dried, ground, roasted, and used as an additive flavor in Louisiana coffee, most predominantly in New Orleans. The custom of blending chicory with coffee began during the Civil War when coffee supplies to New Orleans were cut off by Union naval blockades along the Mississippi River. Although it imparts a slight bitterness, some swear by the medicinal qualities of chicory.
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.
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.”
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.
Cracklin’ (CRACK lin) or Gratton (GRAH tawn) started out as the by-product of a Cajun boucherie (hog slaughter) and is essentially pork (fat and skin) fried in hog lard until crispy golden brown. The Cajun dish has become an art form and is sold in markets (even gas stations) all over rural Acadiana region of Southwest Louisiana. There is even an annual Cracklin’ Festival that celebrates the dish.
Crawfish are freshwater crustaceans trapped wild in the Atchafalaya basin and farmed in the aquaculture ponds of flooded rice fields. Sometimes called “crawdads” or “mudbugs” by locals, you will never hear them called “crayfish”, not ever. Traditionally, the season (depending on the weather) runs from early Spring through mid Summer, and Cajun crawfish boils are a frequent family event throughout South Louisiana. The tail meat is packaged for year-round use in many recipes such as crawfish étouffée and bisque. I urge you to only buy quality Louisiana crawfish and be vigilant of cheap inferior imported (Chinese) crawfish products with Louisiana sounding brand names.
Crème Brûlée (CRIM bru lay) means “burnt cream” and is a classic French dessert featuring a cold rich vanilla custard base topped with a layer of hard, burnt sugar. This Louisiana classic dish is seen mainly in the fine Creole restaurants of New Orleans and less often consumed in rural homes or casual eateries.
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.
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.
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.
Grillades (gree-YAHDS) is thinly sliced cut of beef or veal round steak, braised until tender in a dark tomato sauce. In Creole cooking, grillades and grits has been a mainstay dish on New Orleans restaurant menus for years. In Cajun culture, grillades is more often served over rice and may or may not contain tomatoes. And I do a Gator and Grillades version with alligator. Served with hot biscuits, this is one breakfast entrée you can sink your teeth into.
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.
King Cake is an oval-shaped pastry dessert decorated in colored sugar in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold representing justice, faith, and power. Tradition dictates that a small plastic baby is hidden inside the cake and requires that the person who gets the cake slice hiding the baby supplies the next cake. In Acadiana, a savory version—Boudin King Cake— featuring boudin stuffed with pepper jack cheese is on the table. Check out my recipe for Boudin King Cake.
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.
Meunière (MEN-yere) – is a French term that means “miller’s wife” thus the method involves dredging in flour and sautéing in butter, lemon, and herbs. Trout Meunière is a time-honored Creole dish seen often in New Orleans restaurants, and is occasionally, but rarely, seen in rural Cajun country. Speckled trout is the classic preparation but limitations on that fishery has created many other interpretations such as the use of Black Drum. See my recipe 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.
Muffuletta (muff a LETTA or muff a LOTTA) is a popular Italian sandwich of Sicilian origin featuring ham, salami, mortadella, and provolone cheese stuffed with olive salad on a round loaf of Italian bread. It is the official sandwich of the New Orleans French Quarter made famous by Central Grocery. It’s served either hot or at room temperature. I invite you to read my story about the 5 Keys to The Perfect Muffuletta.
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.
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.
Po’boy or poor boy is a South Louisiana sandwich on French bread similar in presentation to a submarine or hero sandwich. It is usually stuffed with fried seafood (oysters, shrimp, crawfish or softshell crab) or meats such as roast beef.
Ponce (pawnce) or Chaudin (show-DAN) is essentially a sausage-stuffed pig’s stomach. It is a preparation that is seen in most every culinary culture. Ponce is called chaudin in parts of South Louisiana, and while some refer to ponce specifically as the smoked version, the two names are interchangeable. Ponce is cooked by browning and smothering in a dark gravy, and it is eaten by Cajun families the way most American families would eat a pot roast for Sunday dinner.
Rémoulade (RIM-a-lod or ROM-a-lod) is a cold mayonnaise-based 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.
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.
Sauce Piquant or Piquante (sos pee KAHNT) 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.
Trinity – The Cajun trinity or holy trinity is the combination of three chopped vegetables (celery, onions, and green bell pepper) that is the foundation of most every Cajun recipe. I don’t know the origin of the colorful name for these base ingredients (some say it was Chef Paul Prudhomme), but it certainly connects back to the Catholic traditions and religious culture of the area. And you would be hard-pressed not to find a refrigerator full of those three primary vegetables in any Cajun kitchen. Slicing and dicing the holy trinity is an essential skill in learning to cook Cajun.
Turducken is a Cajun meat market delicacy featuring a deboned turkey, stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken, along with lots of Cajun spice and seasoning. It is most popular on the holiday dinner table during Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is sold mail order and available in markets throughout Louisiana. Hebert’s in Maurice, LA is a great source and Big Easy Foods in Lake Charles, LA can ship one to you any time of year.