Research: Cajun vs. Creole

Thursday, December 29, 2016
Bonjour! If you're a fan of charting food fads, you've no doubt noticed that menus featuring “Cajun” or “Creole” offerings are popping up all over the place, no matter what type of restaurant you’re eating at. It’s an interesting trend, but it brought to light a gap in my culinary knowledge: What on Earth is the difference between the two? Well, that seemed like a perfect opportunity for some research, so I started looking into it.

There are several cultural differences, of course, which lead to all sorts of distinctions, not only in the actual ingredients that go into each group’s food, but their entire approach to cooking. If you’re a fan of simplicity, you could follow the single bullet point that one article posits: Creole cooking uses tomatoes, and Cajun cooking does not. Full stop. The end. Good night, everyone!

Obviously, I wanted to dig a little deeper, but that’s some handy knowledge if you’re looking for a fast way to identify the origin of the dish you’re eating. There’s another single-line descriptor that offers a much different type of taxonomy: Creole cuisine is often described as “city” food, while Cajun is considered much more “country”. Why is this so?

It has to do with how the populace established themselves. French colonists that lived in Maine and various parts of Canada who got forcibly expelled by the British during the French and Indian War eventually migrated to Louisiana. That would be the Cajuns. Creole refers to the people who were born to the settlers that already lived in French colonial Louisiana, especially New Orleans. The two populations intermingled a lot, but as alluded to above, the Creoles were much more tied to city life. This, more than anything, is what led to the delineations that separate the two cuisines. After all, Creoles had a lot more access to things like markets and dairy products (not to mention servants that would do all the cooking), while Cajuns were more tied to “living off the land”, so to speak, eating only what they could grow or what they could catch.

The two styles are not totally dissimilar. Both are firmly rooted in French cuisine, with influences from Spain, America, and Africa. Both feature gumbo as a representative dish. Both cuisines feature dishes that are heavily seasoned, though this is often misconstrued as permission to make things unbearably spicy. Cajun food, however, is a lot simpler, basing a lot of their dishes on the “holy trinity”, also known as celery, onion, and bell pepper. They also use a lot of garlic, paprika, thyme, and scallions. One-pot cooking is extremely Cajun, and the roux they use as a base is made from oil and flour, rather than butter and flour roux used in Creole cooking. Cajun gumbo is a lot more stew-like than the soupy Creole gumbo, which has a tomato base. Creole food is more refined across the board, with dishes that are focused on cream and butter, and that incorporate a lot of labor-intensive and multi-ingredient dishes. If you’re looking at a remoulade or a bisque, it’s a safe bet that you’re eating Creole.

Both styles have a lot to recommend them. The simple pleasures of a spicy Cajun stew can be just as satisfying as a complicated Creole Trout a la Meunière. The two have become intertwined to the point that it’s difficult to separate them, but there’s something oddly cheering about that. We’re always hearing about the friction between rural and urban people, and here we have the perfect marriage of the two. Food really is the great unifier.