Mardi Gras Jambalaya
Gulf Coast Paella
Thick, stick to your ribs, spicy, and good, with roots (some say) going back to paella by way of the Creoles, jambalaya is one of those signature dishes that defines regional food culture. When people mention jambalaya, their imagination turns to steamy nights on the bayou, parties in the French Quarter, and Cajun restaurants with vinyl table clothes and heaps of crawfish. And when people mention Louisiana and food, their imagination turns to two things: crawfish and jambalaya.
Essentially a thick stew of rice, stock, meat (sausage, chicken, seafood, game, or any combination thereof), vegetables (more or less at the chef’s discretion), and spices, jambalaya can be made Creole style (red), or Cajun style (brown). It’s a very adaptable dish that has proven to be equally amendable to the simple, hardy, one-pot fare of the Cajuns, and to the somewhat more refined, white tablecloth world of the landed Creoles.
A Brief History of Jambalaya
According to the folks at the Jambalaya Festival in Gonzalez, LA, the name jambalaya is a riff on the Spanish word “jamon” (pork/ham), so it comes as no surprise that sausage, ham, and pork bits are common in many jambalaya recipes. While the use of seafood, and game are easily attributed to access and availability. Indeed, the filling and somewhat overabundant nature of the dish make it easy to imagine jambalaya stemming from one of those larder clearing “eureka moments” suffered by most cooks.
With a house or yard full of friends in need of feeding, some deft Creole or Cajun cook threw the big pot on the fire and started cooking. He or she had probably seen something like Spanish paella, but more than likely they had rice, onion, celery (tomatoes if they were Creole), bell pepper, a bit of ham, maybe some shrimp (or crawfish), and spices (such as Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, bouillon/stock, hot sauce, prepared “Cajun seasoning”, oregano, thyme, garlic powder, etc.). They threw it all in and let it simmer. Appropriately large festival-like gatherings were common (and still are) in Cajun communities. And it’s likely that red jambalaya was introduced at a similar Creole social event.
In general, Creole jambalaya tends to have both meat and vegetables (particularly tomatoes) which helped it gain the moniker “red jambalaya”. By contrast, Cajun jambalaya tends to be brownish in color thanks to the browned bits of meat scraped from the bottom of the pan, retained, and prized as a flavor enhancer.
Where to Get Jambalaya
Today, jambalaya’s popularity is something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, jambalaya is easy to get almost anywhere on the Gulf Coast. On the other hand, it’s easy to get almost anywhere on the Gulf Coast, and is not always done well. Often watered down to more of a gruel/soup, jambalaya is the ultimate in buyer beware menu items. It tends to reflect the rest of the establishment. If it’s a fancy place, it will likely be well and authentically made, if a bit uninspired in an attempt to please as many people as possible. If you’re in something of a dive, it may be cheaply made, but will often be tasty and filling, answering to a higher power - somebody’s grandma.
And for anybody with an interest in the Gulf Coast, Mardi Gras culture, or Louisiana cookery, it’s worth adding an extra notch to your belt to make room for a bit of jambalaya experimentation.
Sources (and External Links)
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