Sultry New Orleans is one of the hottest in all senses of the word destinations for tourism on the planet. For some, NOrleans (pronounced Nahlins), as the locals call it, casts its magic with sweet jazz and blues, best heard in a steamy dive on the second floor of a crumbly antebellum-style building where the music drifts through the French doors and wrought-iron balcony into the streets below. For others, its a pilgrimage to Anne Rices mansion, or a ride on the streetcar named Desire, or the bacchanalian craziness of Mardi Gras that sucks them in.
Then theres a whole army of tourists who visit New Orleans for the sole or is that soul? purpose of eating. And what a glorious eaters paradise it is. English novelist William Makepeace Thackery described New Orleans as the "city in the world where you could eat and drink the most and suffer the least". Of course, that was long before all those sidewalk bars served take-out margaritas and daiquiris in plastic cups.
But Thackery was definitely on to something, even back in Victorian times. Bouillabaisse. Catfish étouflée. Spicy turtle soup. A beignet hot from the oven, dripping with icing sugar. From the old world glory of Antoines, dating back to 1840, to the three food temples owned by celebrity chef Emeril "Bam" Lagasse and dont forget the sandwich bar down the street with the best poboys (thats a sub to us Canucks) in town the city is a melting pot of so many styles and approaches to cooking its tough not to get caught in a culinary conundrum. What causes the greatest confusion of all are the two twins of cooking born and raised in Louisiana: Creole and Cajun.
To a lot of us northerners (thats what were called in bayou country), the two terms are interchangeable. Whether were there, in the heart of swampland, or back home in the coastal rainforest, we loosely apply both descriptors to some kind of "southern" spicy fare. Its likely chicken or seafood, maybe "blackened" or in a gumbo, served with a bottle of Tabasco sauce, a rice/bean combo, and/or cornbread on the side. Sounds to me like Cajun, or is that Creole?
Many stalwartly-held clichés about the two styles of Louisiana heartland cooking have fallen away in recent times that Creole is more sophisticated and urbane, while Cajun is more country-style and features any critter from the swamp: crawfish, alligator or turtle. But in fact, youll often find that the two share classic dishes, as well as levels of spiciness. To make matter more confusing, restaurants touting themselves as Cajun have very similar menus to those dubbed Creole, and vice versa. Gumbo, the regions signature dish, doesnt shed much light on the subject; its a mainstay of both Cajun and Creole cooking. A distinctive roux is used in both, as are virtually all the meats, fish and shellfish found in the inland waterways and the Gulf coast.