New Orleans is a city with a lot to offer: the history, the architecture, the music, the culture. But in truth, the thing many visitors enjoy most is the flavours of New Orleans. It’s hard to think of another city in North America with such a distinctive and delicious cuisine.
Over the course of a week during my recent visit to the Big Easy, my nephew and I managed to sample many of the flavours of New Orleans. It was a culinary adventure, filled with great seafood, exotic meats, some sweet treats and a little hot sauce.
New Orleans is a cultural melting pot, so it stands to reason that the food of New Orleans is a melting pot too. The city has two native cuisines: Cajun, the food of the bayou country, with dishes based on the country cooking of Quebec; and Creole, a more upscale cuisine that mixes French cooking with the flavours of the Caribbean and several other parts of the world.
The first place most visitors go when they visit NOLA is the French Market. And it’s as good an introduction as any to the flavours of New Orleans. The market once sold produce, but today it’s mostly an eatery, filled with food counters selling pretty much all the signature dishes of Louisiana.
The shrimp with grits looked good, and so did the boiled crawfish – you get a whole pile on a tray, set it on the table, and just shell and eat them till you’re full. But it was lunch time, so I opted for the soup that has made Louisiana famous: gumbo. It was as advertised, full of shrimp, chicken and spicy sausage, with a crab claw on top. Even the small portion was too much to finish.
Before we left, we had a good look at the market’s other specialty: hot sauce. This has become a major industry in Louisiana, and New Orleans probably offers the biggest selection you’ll find anywhere. The shelves at the market were lined with bottles bearing names like Swamp Juice and Voodoo Queen. And if you didn’t find what you wanted there, there was lots more at shops all over the French Quarter.
There was another Louisiana specialty on display, too. Hunting alligators is a business in bayou country, as you know if you’ve ever watched the TV show Swamp People. But they’re also farmed in Louisiana, and gator meat is an everyday item in New Orleans cooking. You find it in stews, in sausages, in rice dishes, just about anywhere a little meat would help.
Gator was one food I hadn’t tried, so I waited for the right moment. And it appeared in a suitably iconic place: an eatery on the riverboat Natchez, during a cruise on the Mississippi. We had stepped in for a drink, but when the counter lady began serving up alligator sausages – well, why not?
The meat was softer and more tender than I expected. And while the southern spices added a little zip, it really didn’t taste much different than a regular pork sausage. I wonder if they can make alligator bacon … Unfortunately, I tucked into the sausage before it occurred to me to take a photo, so you’ll have to imagine what it looked like.
Speaking of iconic places, you really haven’t tasted the flavours of New Orleans if you haven’t visited the Café du Monde. This tented coffee house looking out on Jackson Square may be the city’s most famous culinary landmark. Which is remarkable, because it serves just one thing: beignets, the Café’s special take on the doughnut, washed down with chicory-flavoured coffee.
It took us a couple of tries to get in – the first time, the line-up was 20 minutes long. But arriving early one morning, we grabbed a table and were soon digging into plates of the warm, savoury beignets, dusted with icing sugar. Somehow, it gave the guilty pleasure of eating doughnuts a bit more class.
Over the course of a week, we sampled a few other trademark New Orleans dishes, like red beans and rice – true Creole cooking, and one of my favourites. Served with some boudin or andouille sausage, it’s real comfort food. Then there were the po boy sandwiches, on a long stick of French bread, and muffulettas, flat meat and cheese sandwiches introduced by Italian settlers – think panini and you’re pretty close.
Add Cajun sausage and hot sauce, and it’s Louisiana home cooking
But there was another New Orleans dish I couldn’t leave without trying one more time: jambalaya. Like many local favourites, it’s an adaptation of a dish imported from afar — Spanish paella. But somehow, once you add Cajun sausage, local seafood and a little hot sauce, it’s Louisiana home cooking.
If you’re looking for a good place to have it, you can do worse than Felix’s, the legendary seafood house in the French Quarter. Sitting at the counter, I ordered a small bowl and a beer. With the counter men shucking oysters down the counter and the locals trading stories in the back, it was a real New Orleans moment. And it tasted just as I remembered.
New Orleans is on the Gulf of Mexico, so its true specialty is seafood. On one of our last nights in NOLA, we decided on a seafood feast at the Red Fish Grill, right on Bourbon Street. We started off with fried oysters, hot and delectable, set off with a blue cheese dressing.
Next, the main courses. I chose a combo of fried catfish with crawfish étouffée. I had never tried catfish before, but it was tender and flavourful – not as strong-tasting as I’d imagined. The crawfish étoufée, a New Orleans specialty cooked in a savoury pepper sauce, set it off just fine.
My nephew chose the Louisiana court-bouillon (seen at the top of this post). A steaming plate of sautéed shrimp, seared fish, poached oysters and popcorn rice, it was rib-sticking and full of flavour. And the jalapeño cornbread looked too good not to borrow a bite – delicious.
We were almost out of town. But one treat remained: I had to sample the king cake, a special pastry that’s a New Orleans tradition around Mardi Gras time. It’s a colourful sight, decorated with coloured sugar in the Mardi Gras colours, and a plastic baby sitting on top, The tradition is that whoever gets the piece with the baby has to buy the next cake.
We finally came upon one in a food market on St. Claude Ave., one of the city’s newly gentrifying neighbourhoods. I got the piece with the baby – I guess the next one’s on me. And oddly, it’s not really a cake at all, more of a multi-layered pastry with a cream cheese filling. The whole effect resembles a cinnamon bun. But I wasn’t complaining; it was the perfect snack, with a good cup of coffee.
And that was it, the sweet end to a week spent discovering the many flavours of New Orleans. We could have spent a month sampling more Louisiana treats – a plate of Gulf oysters in one of the city’s raw bars, brunch at Brennan’s, or dinner at Emeril’s, topped off with some of the local pecan pie.
But New Orleans is not cheap, especially when you eat in famous restaurants, and we had a budget to stick to. There’s always next time – and I did bring a few pralines home with me.
All photos except the jambalaya taken with the Fujifilm X-A3 mirrorless camera.