Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cajun Food Hides in Plain Sight in New Orleans

April 18, 2010 - New Orleans often seems to exist to be misunderstood by outsiders, and Cajun food — what it is, where to find it, what it tastes like — is a disorienting topic even to people who live here.

Not even K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and Cochon, the city’s two best known Cajun restaurants, are full-blooded Cajun. An early K-Paul’s menu included fettuccine, and Cochon self-identifies as both “Cajun” and “Southern.” The Bon Ton Café, the city’s oldest Cajun cooking stronghold, serves dishes you can find at Galatoire’s.

“It does strike me as a little odd when people say I’m going to New Orleans to eat some Cajun food,” said Frank Brigtsen, who has been cooking Cajun-style food professionally for 30-odd years, most of them at his restaurant Brigtsen’s. “That requires a long explanation.”

I’ll try to keep it short.

New Orleans is an old city, but its reputation as a stronghold of Cajun cooking is relatively new and roughly 136 miles off the mark.

Cajun food comes, of course, from Cajun country, the largely rural swath of marshes, swamps, bayous and plains whose unofficial capital is Lafayette. Cajuns are descendents of the French Acadians who fled eastern Canada in the 1700s. The food is born of the ingredients and challenges unique to rural people. It is porkier that the Creole food indigenous to New Orleans. It is also marked by fewer European cooking techniques, a characteristic that leads many to describe it as simple, which is not to say it isn’t labor intensive or deeply flavored.

That is history drawn in broad strokes, and anyone interested in the full story of Cajun cuisine should visit the library and/or the region itself.

Read a brief guide to Cajun cooking in New Orleans here.

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