Did you know that the United States is the third largest consumer of seafood, after China and Japan? And much of our fascination with seafood restaurants and cooking is due to the culinary tradition known as Cajun cuisine.
Cajun food, which is known for its intense heartiness and spicy notes, is a style of food that was developed in the southern parts of the United States. It originated with Acadian immigrants, who ended up in the south after fleeing Canada in the 18th century.
Cajun cuisine was originally inspired by rural French cooking, and was developed by a people group that lived off the land, adapting through significant geographic changes and centuries of varied cultural influences.
Who Were the Acadians?
The Acadians were the original French settlers who came to North America. They immigrated to Canada in the early 17th century and lived in what is known today as Maritime Provinces. The Acadians lived off of whatever was readily available to them in their environment. The traditional peasant-style recipes that they brought with them from the French countryside had to be modified to include the ingredients available in the area. These recipes usually involved meat and vegetables cooked together in a large pot of thick sauce. In their new land, the Acadians caught new kinds of fish in the neighboring sea and grew new kinds of foods on land.
However, when the Acadians were pressured to swear allegiance to the British Crown in 1755, they refused. More than 14,000 of them were then deported. Many of those then made it all the way down south to Louisiana, where true Cajun cooking got its start.
Cajun Cuisine in Development
After getting settled in this southern area of the United States, the Acadian farmers once again changed their cooking based on what ingredients were readily available to them. This meant their cuisine developed to feature oysters, crab, alligator, shrimp, crawfish, catfish, and redfish — all of which could be caught in the Gulf of Mexico and the waters of the local bayou. This was a stark contrast to the lobster, cod, and salmon which they caught in the North Atlantic Ocean outside Canada.
Furthermore, their conventional staple vegetable, the potato, was changed for rice, which grew very well in Louisiana’s warm, sticky environment. Bell peppers took the place of the conventional carrots, and exotic spices like cayenne and black pepper were introduced to their cooking. Along the way, influences from the Native Americans, African Americans, and Spanish made it into their cuisine as well. Every one of these diverse influences factored into making Cajun cuisine what we know it as today.
Cajun Food’s Appearance
So what does Cajun cuisine look like? As Cajun dishes are still deeply rooted in seafood, they maintain the Acadian tradition of using whatever the environment provides. The “Holy Trinity” of onion, celery, and green bell peppers are the basis for just about every dish. Additionally, a special roux is almost always used, and spices are an integral key to developing Cajun food’s characteristic flavors.
Trademark Cajun dishes include jambalaya (a dish focused on rice); gumbo (soup made with okra, sausage, chicken, sometimes shrimp, and file); boudin and boudin balls (pork sausage and fried pork sausage); and rice with gravy. True to their down to earth roots, the Acadia population still get together with community-based food celebrations. Such celebrations include family Boucherie, cochon de lait, the famous crawfish boil, and the rural version of Mardi Gras.
Now you understand the basic history of Cajun cuisine — a style of cooking every bit as unique and intriguing as its backstory.