Thursday, 6 August 2009

creole & cajun cooking

New Orleans. What a place!

Jonas and I spent 5 nights there in July and had such a wonderful time, despite the excruciating humidity.

We had not planned on going to New Orleans this year, or to the USA at all, but my grandfather turned 90 and I wanted to see my family so off we went. Apart from visiting my family in Daytona Beach, I let Jonas pick another city to visit.

His choice was New Orleans and I wasn’t complaining since I’d selected Cajun and Creole cuisines as part of my 2009 Food Challenges.

Before we left I did my research about what and where to eat (and drink) and we certainly weren’t disappointed. In fact I put on 2kgs from my efforts!

Highlights? I’d have to say for me the top 5 were:
1. Fiorella’s deep-fried pickles
2. Brennan’s brandy milk punch
3. Drago’s charbroiled oysters
4. Johnny’s catfish po’boys
5. Napoleon House’s Ramos gin fizz

My favourite bar was Napoleon House and my favourite restaurant was Bacco.

Jonas and I sampled some of the most famous dishes New Orleans has to offer and I finally came to understand the difference between Creole and Cajun cooking (sort of). Here’s my attempt at explaining it all:

Créoles, in the original New Orleanais sense of the word, meant a European of French or Spanish ancestry born in the colony rather than Europe. Even under Spanish rule they spoke French and were predominantly Catholic. By the time the United States bought Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803, Creole had come to symbolise colonial people of French culture more broadly (language, customs, governance) and incorporated others with African and Native American descent also. Interestingly, their “French island” in a sea of British-descended America, made them band together quite closely resulting in much less racial discrimination than other American cities at the time.

This heavy French influence means Creole is a fusion of French cooking techniques and local ingredients. It is an urban-focused cuisine with dishes lean towards the refined, with more subtle and buttery flavours, and care given to presentation. Good examples of Creole inventions are pecan pralines or turtle and sherry soup.

When Britain took over Nova Scotia (Canada) in 1755, they expelled the French peasant Arcadians (later known as Cajuns) who sailed to French New Orleans to find sanctuary. The gentrified Creoles wanted nothing to do with these distant rural cousins and so the Cajuns were forced out from the city and into the swamps and prairies.

The rural influences means Cajun cooking is more rustic and spicy, using ingredients from the land, sea and swamps like crawfish, rabbits and redfish. Stews and single-pot mish-mashes like gumbo and jamabalaya reflect their thriftiness and hearty cooking style.

Jonas and I sampled some of the most famous dishes New Orleans has to offer: eggs sardou; eggs hussarde; gumbo; jambalaya; po’ boys; red beans & rice; biscuits; pralines; beignets; bread pudding and pecan pie.

Our first night there we dined at Fiorella’s (1136 Decatur Street) and got a taste of the portion sizes we could expect for the rest of the trip. Stupidly, we ordered a few appetizers before our mains (as we would in Australia) only the appetizers that came out were the same size as an Aussie main course! Needless to say we waddled back to our hotel feeling very, very full.

But the food was fantastic! The first thing we tried ended up my all time favourite dish of the holiday: deep fried pickles. They were breaded and served with ranch, and were absolutely divine paired with a giant glass goblet of cold Abita beer. The spinach and artichoke dip (a common menu item in NO) and round slices of breaded and fried eggplant with a marinara dipping sauce were also very good.

Breakfast was covered well. There were an abundance of cakes, sandwiches, biscuits, grits and egg dishes to take care of any hangover. I particularly enjoyed a spicy gumbo start to my day, but New Orleans’ two most famous eggs dishes were also pretty damn good.

Eggs Sardou consists of a round of bread topped with creamed spinach, then artichoke hearts, then poached egg and all topped with Hollandaise sauce. It was invented at Antoine's, but is sold in most breakfast joints around town. Being a fan of artichokes and spinach, I’m a big fan of Eggs Sardou.

Eggs Hussarde was invented at Brennan’s, where I had the pleasure of eating it as part of Brennan’s wonderful three course brunch menu. As they describe it, Eggs Hussarde is “poached eggs atop Holland rusks, Canadian bacon and Marchand de Vin sauce. Topped with Hollandaise sauce.” What a way to start the day.

Unfortunately for my tastes, I noticed a city-wide tendency for sauces to take on cream or butter flavours. They did not taste “bad” but it was clear this was the local preference. A good illustration was every restaurant serving very buttery Hollandaise which lacked the slight acidity of the European (and Australian) styles. For me this meant it didn’t help cut through the fattiness of the eggs it was served with.

Small problems when faced with such delights.

Breakfast at Johnny's Po' Boys (511 St Louis Street) really hit the spot. In fact I’ve been hankering for their catfish po’ boy for days. A po’ boy (short for poor boy) or sub (or submarine sandwich), is a sandwich of fillings served on a baguette. In New Orleans they take on a whole new meaning with fillets of crumbed catfish, piles of deep fried oysters or shrimp and the debris po’ boy, made from all the crispy pieces of beef that fall from the roast as it cooks.

Johnny’s also serve a mean bowl of gumbo (perfectly spicy) and Jonas was a fan of their “biscuits” with eggs, smothered in one of Louisiana’s fine hot sauces. I also loved the sweetened iced tea they had too.

New Orleans offers an abundance of seafood from the generous portions of lump crabmeat to the fillets of catfish, redfish or black drum, as well as crawfish, shrimp, soft shell crab and plump oysters. New Orleans seafood goes at very decent prices and I ate so much that when I arrived back in Sydney all I wanted to eat for the next week was red meat.

At Bacco (top right) I dined on delicious grilled blackdrum served with shrimp, panzanella and pesto. The Grapevine (bottom left) delivered a beautiful redfish stuffed with crab lumpmeat and smothered in crawfish sauce.

Drago’s famous broiled oysters really hit the spot. Our swamp boat captain had been singing their praises and they were truly delicious. Unfortunately the lobster I ordered was tough and over-cooked and drawn butter just isn’t exciting enough to wet my lips. I need acidity (read lemon) with blanched seafood.

The beignets in New Orleans (top left) were quite different from the ones I’ve tried in France and Italy. They were much lighter but also oilier, and one was good but two became a bit monotonous. Frankly I think they are a bit overrated. I wasn't a big fan of the Café Du Monde coffee either, even though it was the best cup I had during my time in the US.

Other local desserts did not disappoint! Delicious cream cheese ice cream (here sandwiched between red velvet cake) was smooth and perfectly sour-sweet while Grapevine’s divine vanilla and white chocolate bread pudding was dense and rich and perfect. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to try the flambéed Bananas Foster, photographed at their birthplace, Brennan’s.

I always thought of praline as a chocolate filling made of powdered caramelised nuts (almond or hazelnut), but in New Orleans the praline is a buttery, sugary, crumbly type of caramel studded with pecans (bottom right). I adored them.

The other New Orleans specialty are their cocktails, which I covered in another post.

New Orleans sure has a lot to offer a foodie.

There were quite a few famous dishes that I didn’t get to sample while I was there, including Bananas Foster, turtle soup and crawfish Étouffée, shrimp Remoulade, oysters Rockefeller, Café Brûlot, king cake and grits. I guess that just gives me an excuse to go back!

Venues I’d recommend:
310 Chartres Street
Italian (with very local twists)
Good food and elegant atmosphere without the stuffiness.

Napoleon House
500 Chartres Street
Historic bar
Sit at the bar and soak up the 200yrs of atmosphere.

Johnny’s Po’ Boys
511 St Louis Street
NOLA staples (po’boys, gumbo, muffelettas)
No fuss diner with delicious food.

Orleans Grapevine
720 Orleans Avenue
Wine bar / restaurant
Funky and sophisticated all in one.

1136 Decatur Street
Casual diner
Deep-fried pickles, fried chicken and cold beer.

Chart Room
300 Chartres Street

Casual bar/pub
Local watering hole oozing with character.

417 Royal Street
A brunch extraordinaire.

Marigny Brasserie
640 Frenchmen Street
Sunny place for afternoon cocktails or lunch.

Bombay Club
830 Conti Street
Martini bar / restaurant
Romantic, smoky, colonial charm.

Carousel Piano Bar
214 Royal Street
Cocktail lounge
Rotating 1904 carousel as the bar. Need I say more?

200 Magazine Street
Modern, fresh flavours in a city of deep-fry.

Café du Monde
800 Decatur Street
It’s overdone, but you’ve got to do it!

2 Poydras Street
Stick with the charbroiled oysters.

View New Orleans in a larger map


  1. What a wonderful culinary trip through New Orleans, Anna. Your descriptions of the differences between Cajun and Creole are spot on, the photos are wonderful and your food descriptions make me hungry to visit that dazzling city again. Well done!

  2. Great post!! As an American, sadly I've yet to visit NO, so I will definitely refer to this post when I do. Your blog is wonderful and inspiring.

  3. The only way to write a travel guide in my opinion - from your stomach's opinion! I could almost taste all the fabulous things I sampled and now I'm hungry again even though I just ate breakfast. I can't believe what I'm reading either...not only do you eat oysters now but coffee...who would have thought it?


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