Once again, Mardi Gras is right around the corner, and, as with most other things, my first thoughts revolve around food. Because Mardi Gras is nearly synonymous with Louisiana (at least in the United States), I thought I’d explore a uniquely Louisianian dish and uncover the history of jambalaya.
I’m not a big drinker. Perhaps because of this, I’m also not a huge partier. So, the carnival aspects of Mardi Gras never had much appeal to me. The eating aspects, however? Now we’re talking! Mardi Gras, translated from French to mean “fat Tuesday,” refers to the final day before the Christian season of Lent, where many of the faithful fast. Which means Mardi Gras is the last day to…indulge (i.e. stuff your face) in all your favorite goodies before giving them up in prayerful contemplation. As if I needed an excuse for food to be the highlight of any holiday. Still, there it is!
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When I think of Mardi Gras, I think Cajun and Creole foods (yes, they are different). And there’s really nothing more universally Cajun and Creole than jambalaya. Ah, jambalaya. Just imagining it makes me feel like Newman from “Seinfeld” must have felt while taking a big whiff of his recently purchased bowl, and excitedly exclaiming, “Jambalaya!” before giddily running off to eat it. Rice? Protein? Veggies? Savory seasoning? A complete dish, with the taste to match. It’s a veritable powerhouse food!
That said, it’s odd and somewhat confusing that Newman obtained his jambalaya from a soup joint. Why? Because jambalaya is most certainly not a soup. That’s gumbo. While sharing similarities with gumbo, jambalaya is a rice dish. Actually, in its truer forms, it sort of reminds me of paella, and there’s good reason for that. But, wait! Paella is a Spanish dish, and Louisiana has its roots in French culture. Right? Right. Well, sort of.
While Louisiana has strong French roots, there was a time in the region’s history when the Spanish held control—from 1762 to 1800, to be precise. Prior to that, the French held control after settling in the area. Then, in 1800, the Louisiana Territory came under Napoleon’s control (and therefore rejoined the French empire), though the Spanish were still heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the state—at least until 1803. At that point, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States by way of the Louisiana Purchase.
That 38 years, while relatively short in the grand scheme of things, was plenty of time for Spain to leave its mark on local cuisine. By many accounts, during this time of Spanish control, they sought to bring flavors from their culture to their new home. In trying to make paella near New Orleans, they encountered one significant snag. They couldn’t find saffron. To get around this, they used something that was more plentiful—tomatoes. And so, red jambalaya, also known as Creole jambalaya, was born.
Even though Spain controlled the area in the late 18th century, there was still a lot of French influence, which only grew when France reacquired the territory at the beginning of the 19th century. As that happened, the French brought new spices from the Caribbean and infused them into local cuisine, which, by then, included jambalaya. From there, the current flavor profile of modern jambalaya began to take hold.
As the dish gained in popularity, a new region-specific style of jambalaya emerged—brown, or Cajun, jambalaya. As you moved away from the big city, tomatoes became pretty sparse, so it wasn’t a reasonable ingredient to include. This alternative style included seasoning, oil, and different types of seafood or meat found throughout the region. The original varieties of the Cajun style include vegetables like onion and peppers, but newer, simplified versions sometimes do without.
The final piece of the puzzle, the inclusion of sausage, came about as more Germans immigrated to the region beginning in the 18th century. By the 1840s and 1850s, German immigration to Louisiana was at an all-time high. Similar to the Spanish before them, German immigrants brought elements of their culture to their new home, including their penchant for sausage-making. Before long, sausage found its way into the regional fare, which, of course, included jambalaya.
So, there you have it! Jambalaya, a signature dish of Louisiana, was the result of three distinct cultures coming together to share old world know-how, and region-specific ingredients to create something both remarkable and unique. Hopefully you get to enjoy a hearty plate sometime soon. Have a fun and safe Mardi Gras, folks!