Not even the locals who have eaten at all the best spots and can associate any Po-boy in town with its originator, always know the fundamental differences between Cajun and Creole cooking. Visitors to the Crescent city are always asking about “Cajun” food, when they really mean Creole cooking.
The fact that Cajun and Creole cooking are so intertwined does not make matters easy. Restaurants like K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and Cochon are two of New Orleans’s most popular “Cajun” eateries; however, even these favorites are not full-blooded Cajun.
Cajun food is a product of Cajun country. If one thinks of the rural expansion of marshes, swampland, and bayous around Lafayette, then you’re on the right track. Cajun people are descendants of French Arcadians from Eastern Canada, and their food is a product of the ingredients and resources of rural people. For example, Cajun food is porkier than New Orleans’s Creole food. The rural lifestyle that Arcadians once had is even reflected in the simple cooking style of Cajun cuisine. Unlike Creole food, there is no European influence on the cooking techniques, yet the food is flavorful and savory.
A Creole is one born in south Louisiana of parents who immigrated from Europe–most particularly France, Spain, and Portugal. In In Colonial times, they often migrated here via Cuba and the West Indies. Creole cooking is influenced by the techniques developed in Europe; the Creoles in New Orleans tended to be cosmopolitan and sophisticated; so was there food.
Cajun fever spread through the Big Easy in the early 70’s when Paul Prudhomme commandeered the kitchen at Commander’s Palace. Then in 1979, Prudhomme left his post as Head Chef and opened K-Paul’s, and the rest is history. Since these two iconic restaurants became dominate on the local scene, the Cajun sensation spread throughout New Orleans, but was always mixed in with the Creole flavors. Thus began the entanglement of Creole and Cajun, right up to present day.
The differences? Creole jambalaya obviously uses tomato, while Cajun jambalaya tends leaves it out, resulting in a brown sauce. There is also more “smoke” in the Cajun version. But you will see the different dishes made where they “traditionally” should not. Thanks to years of mixing and fixing, it was bound to happen. And most folks can’t really define the food styles. They just want that flavorful cooking that can truly only be found in South Louisiana.
Cajun or Creole? You’ll have to decide as you eat your way through the region on your next visit.