Louisiana's best chefs discuss creating the distinct southern flavors that are the essence of Cajun classics like gumbo and étouffée.
"Best summary of Cajun Food that I have ever read. "
What makes it great? I’ve asked myself this as I’ve sat in a shack along Bayou Lafourche, shucking my way through a bushel of oysters; and I’ve asked myself this as I’ve sat beneath the moss-draped oaks of Avery Island, the soft air and cicadas lulling me into a Southern stupor, and tasted the thick, rich, crab-infused seafood gumbo of the late, great Eula Mae Doré. “She’s one of the treasures of Avery Island,” says Paul McIlhenny, whose great-grandfather invented Tabasco sauce. “She is part of the terroir of this place.”
What I’ve realized is that when your pantry is limited, you learn tricks to make whatever you cook taste extra good. “The essence of our cuisine is built on a depth of flavor you rarely find in other cooking,” says the boisterous Lafayette chef Pat Mould. “There is a big misconception that it is all about spice. It’s about flavor first, then the spice.” “Flavor first” is an excellent description of Cajun cooking techniques like making a roux—cooking flour in fat until it turns brown and chocolaty, which is what gives gumbo its nutty underpinning—and like étouffée, which means “smothered” and involves slow-cooking onions, green peppers and celery in a covered pot to lay down that foundation of flavor.
“And often Cajun cooking is all in one pot,” says chef Alex Patout, who grew up in New Iberia, in the heart of Cajun country. Think gumbo or jambalaya all cooked in the famous Cajun “black pot”—the cast-iron cauldron that was often all the home cook had. “It’s an impoverished cuisine,” Patout says. That’s part of what differentiated it from Creole cooking, which took cues from Parisian cuisine and favored multiple courses and elaborate spices.