I don’t know about you, but when I travel to New Orleans to eat and drink, I usually don’t ask questions—but when perusing menus, you might wonder “What is the difference between jambalaya and étouffée?”
Normally, I don’t bother with explanations, hardly glance at dish descriptions, eschew translations, because I know, whatever it is, it’s going to be damn delicious. Food culture and heritage is the heartbeat of that city, after all; you can trust that you’re in good hands.
Of course, it’s not a totally infallible plan. The problem arises when I get back, and in my food-and-cocktail sweats haze cannot, for the life of me, remember which was the favorite dish I wanted to try and recreate at home. It had lots of spice and rich, savory flavor…there was shellfish of some variety, shrimp, I think, and maybe sausage…rice, for sure…it wasn’t a soup, so gumbo’s out. Narrowed down to jambalaya and étouffée, I decided to do some digging.
Cajun vs Creole
Cajun and Creole cuisines. There is a difference, by the way, if you’re interested in reading up on it, but to make a long story short: Creole cuisine relies on a wider variety of cultural influences—French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, Portuguese, among others—and therefore often uses more traditionally “exotic” ingredients and spices. Cajuns, on the other hand, are considered those of French Acadian descent, and their cuisine is firmly based around whole-animal butchery, indigenous seafood, and more local ingredients and bold seasonings. Which is why the roux in Cajun étouffée is made using oil and flour and is typically darker, whereas in Creole cuisine, it’s butter and flour. And Cajun jambalaya, for example, doesn’t call for diced tomatoes, like its Creole counterpart, and instead browns the meat in the pot first before adding any other ingredients. But I digress.Not surprisingly, the two dishes have roots in both
Related Reading: The Best New Orleans Food to Order Online for Fat Tuesday
The Holy Trinity, Roux, and Rice
One thing that unites both dishes (in either of their iterations) is the use of the “holy trinity”: The combination of onions, bell peppers, and celery that is at the base of just about any iconic Louisiana dish you can think of. The other important staple of Louisiana cooking, roux—flour cooked in fat mixture essential to thickening sauces—is used in étouffée, but not jambalaya. This, I would say, has to do with how you would codify the two dishes. Both are considered main dishes, but étouffée is more or less a sauce, a thick gravy, if you will, typically served over rice. Jambalaya, however, is a rice dish, akin to paella, its likely ancestor. One uses rice as a vehicle, the other as a staple component of the dish.
Lodge 6-Quart Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven, $59.99 on Amazon
Whichever one you make, you'll need a big pot, and this one goes from stovetop to oven to table.
Meat & Seafood
As for the discussion of other key ingredients, there is a little overlap. Shellfish, specifically crawfish (arguably the most traditional), shrimp, and crab, are the usual stars of étouffée, although there are certainly variations with meat that exist (chicken, rabbit, and sausage). While étouffée is usually a one (maybe two) ingredient-driven show, jambalaya is all about the combo. The usual suspects there are andouille sausage, chicken, smoked ham, and shrimp.
Alright, enough talk, get yourself to the kitchen and laissez les bons temps rouler.
Humble though it may appear on the plate, this cultural melting pot of a rice stew is definitely for those home cooks who enjoy tackling a more labor-intensive project. A masterful layering of flavors, this Cajun creation combines bold spice with the savory trinity of snappy andouille sausage, smoked ham, and chicken thighs. Get our Chicken and Smoked Andouille Jambalaya recipe.
The party in your mouth that is this savory, spicy one-pot-wonder surf-n-turf stew gets a little more raucous here with the substitution of wild rice for the traditional jasmine. The nuttier, chewier grain cranks the volume on the texture and heartiness of the dish in a really great way. Get our Wild Rice Jambalaya recipe.
How can someone not love a dish that can easily transition from being last night’s dinner to tomorrow’s breakfast? Once you have the jambalaya made, all you need to do is add soft scrambled eggs, shredded cheese, and wrap it all up on a large, warmed flour tortilla. And there you have it: The breakfast of I’m-gonna-need-a-nap-later champions. Get the Easy Jambalaya Breakfast Burrito recipe.
I’m admittedly wary of any recipe that draws its inspiration from a signature dish of The Cheesecake Factory, but the internet overwhelmingly agrees that the restaurant’s Jambalaya Pasta is pretty damn good. Aside from swapping a thin noodle like spaghetti or linguini for the traditional rice, this version retains the flavor and ingredients of the original but offers the added bonus of making it an all-prepared-in-one-pot meal. Get the One-Pot Jambalaya Pasta recipe.
Here’s one creative way to reinvent the jambalaya wheel for your summer barbecue: Take the star ingredients (andouille, chicken, shrimp, onion, pepper), smother them in Cajun seasoning, and arrange them onto a skewer. Cooking over the grill adds a welcome smokiness to the mix, and you can serve them either as is or stuffed into a toasted roll. Get the Jambalaya Skewers recipe.
No, the crawfish never did anything to me personally. But I still don’t feel a lick of guilt about taking pleasure in smothering the sweet, tender meat of the shellfish in a thick roux-based sauce and serving it all over rice. The result is just too good to resist. (If you’re having trouble sourcing crawfish, shrimp, albeit less “traditional,” works well as a substitute. Or even lobster, if you’re feeling fahn-cy.) Get the Classic Crawfish Etoufée recipe.
Rarely am I not going to be in favor of a culinary mash-up, and this etouffee-topped risotto is pretty perfect—but if you want to involve two Louisiana-inspired shrimp dishes, this Etouffée-Style Shrimp and Grits recipe may be even better. Either way, you have a creamy, starchy heap of deliciousness topped with spiced, saucy shrimp. Get the Shrimp Etouffée Risotto recipe.
The classic étouffée formula may not need a makeover, but it hasn’t stopped people from getting creative with its look over the years. A particular favorite reimagining of the dish is this recipe for crawfish pie (because really, who doesn’t love pie, especially a savory one?) As it turns out, the generously spiced, crawfish-studded sauce is a perfect contrast to the texture of the crisp, flaky crust. Get the Crawfish Etouffée Pie recipe.
Purists will no doubt cry “blasphemy” at the idea of a vegetarian étouffée. And believe me, I get it. But for the meat-averse, this rendition does a good job of keeping the original dish’s sea essence thanks to the clever inclusion of dried wakame. Get the Vegetable Etouffée recipe.
Related Video: Eat Like You’re in New Orleans with These Ingredients
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Chowhound and Getty Images