The good food of New Orleans

The French connection: A café for po’boys, sandwiches made with a baguette stuffed with fried shrimp or roast beef, along with lettuce, mayo and mustard   -  ISTOCK.COM

The Amercian city of jazz enjoys many flavours — Creole, Cajun, French, Spanish and more

In New Orleans, especially in the French Quarter, jazz and cocktails rule. But a close second is the aroma of food that teases the nostrils and the palate as you wander around the area. It is not difficult to see why. The food of New Orleans is as nuanced and layered as its jazz, because of the influences they share. From African and Caribbean to French and Spanish, there’s so much happening on the palate. At its heart are dishes influenced by Creole (French, Spanish, Native American or African heritage) and Cajun (descendants of French-speaking Acadians) cuisines — with textures and flavours that meld and mix.

The jambalaya, with its African, Spanish and French accents, is among the foremost Creole dishes in New Orleans. A melange of rice, meat and spices, it resembles the Spanish paella but an African twist makes it unique. It is flavourful and spicy without packing any heat and is also prepared with seafood. While many of the city’s iconic Creole restaurants serve the dish, Coop’s Place on Decatur Street and Desire on Bourbon Street are highly recommended. Coop’s also serves a special version with rabbit and pork sausages, which are gently cooked with rice, tomatoes, onion, bell peppers and Creole spices.

The jambalaya meets its match in popularity only with the gumbo. To call the gumbo a stew is like describing the Taj Mahal as a tomb. It holds the reputation of being Louisiana’s state dish, and has a base of strongly flavoured stock in which meat, spices and vegetables such as onions, peppers and celery are stewed. However, its distinguishing feature is the thickener, which is usually supplied by okra. A meal in itself, the gumbo can either be Creole or Cajun. The former will usually have shellfish and a French roux while the latter can have shellfish or chicken, and is darker. The gumbo holds its own at Dooky Chase or at Upperline in the leafy residential areas of Western New Orleans.

For a hefty dose of old-world charm and traditional New Orleans cuisine, there’s nothing better than Commander’s Place, in the uptown Garden District, surrounded by greenery and majestic plantation houses. Over a century old, Commander’s Place elevates Creole food to haute cuisine status while adhering to the 100-mile policy of sourcing its produce — that is, ensuring that the ingredients used are procured from areas less than 100 miles away. Though its jambalaya and gumbo are impeccable, what is irresistible is the local fare such as rice and red beans with sausages, turtle soup, cutlet-like beef tournedos, boudin (rice, meat and spices cooked together and stuffed into a sausage casing) and Creole bread pudding soufflé.

There’s enough to look for beyond Creole and Cajun delicacies. On Decatur Street, diagonally opposite the landmark Jackson Square, is an iconic café with a bright green and white striped awning. Café du Monde is over 150 years old and specialises in beignets, which should be had with a cup of its equally famous café au lait.

On a sweet note: A beignet is a square piece of fried dough that’s dusted with powdered sugar   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

A beignet is a square piece of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar. Simple and yet incredibly delicious, it is eaten at any time of the day including for breakfast. Its origins go back to the arrival of the French in Louisiana. Just how much of a hit it is is evident from the fact that the café is crowded through the day and into the night with queues sometimes stretching for more than a block.

If there’s one thing that can give the beignets a run for their money, then it has to be the po’boy.

A po’boy — a New Orleans must-have   -  ANITA RAO KASHI

 

Distinctly French, as much as the beignet, it is a sandwich crafted with a small and crusty baguette which is cut horizontally and stuffed with fried shrimp (or roast beef), tomatoes, lettuce, mayo and mustard. A meal in itself, it began as a subsistence for poor workers (or poor boy, which later got shortened to po’boy) more than a century ago. But over time, it became such a hit that it is indelibly linked to New Orleans. It is widely available all over the city, but perhaps Parasol’s and the chic American Sector café adjacent to the World War II Museum offer the most soul-satisfying versions of the sandwich.

In the end, long after the trip is done, it is a toss-up between the soulful strains of jazz and the complex flavours of the food. But it is quite likely that one evokes the other, for the two are so irrevocably intertwined.

Anita Rao Kashi is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru

Published on August 15, 2019
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