Introduction to the joys of cajun and creole cuisine

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"What real Cajuns ++ the descendents of French Acadians who settled in southern Louisiana in the 18th Century ++ eat is frequently spicy but rarely incendiary. The spice thing has been blown out of proportion." ~ Chef Patrick Mould, C.E.C., Lafayette, Louisiana by Chuck Taggart What is real Cajun food? As Michael Doucet said, before about 15 years ago there was no such thing as "Cajun food" in most people's minds, and no such thing as a Cajun restaurant. "There was food Cajuns ate,and restuarants where they ate it," says Mike, but "Cajun" as descriptive of a style of cooking was unheard-of even in New Orleans++ bastion of Creole cuisine ++ 20 years ago. "Then," describes Mike, "Paul Prudhomme burnt a fish and it all went through the roof!" Chef Paul Prudhomme, of K-Paul's Restaurant in New Orleans and a native of Opelousas, Louisiana, can be given a lot of the credit for popularizing-style cooking in America. He has been one of Louisiana's most innovative and influential chefs, and has launched the careers of many other prominent Louisiana chefs. This dish that became his signature was Blackened Redfish, a simple but brilliant technique for cooking fish (or steak, chicken, etc.) which involves cooking fish dipped in clarified butter and sprinkled with Creole seasoning in an iron skillet over incredibly high heat, creating a blackened crust and preserving the natural juiciness of the fish. But there have been drawbacks to this innovation. Throughout America, blackened redfish became synonymous with Cajun food, even though its creator does not describe it as such. You'll hear ill-informed people talking about how blackening is a "200-year-old Cajun technique", when in fact Chef Prudhomme developed it in the late '70s while executive Creole seasoning chef at Commander's Palace, and poplarized it at K-Paul's. The dish's enormous popularity ended up causing redfish to be fished almost to extinction; it is currently illegal to serve redfish in Louisiana that has been caught in Gulf waters.

Myriad so-called "Cajun" restaurants opened all over America to capitalize on the craze, many of which were operated by people who had no idea what Cajun cuisine was really like, and who served execrable food. And somewhere along the line, "Cajun" became synonymous with "hot". Cajuns like their food well-seasoned, and this seasoning almost always includes black pepper and cayenne pepper, but the idea that Cajun food is like regular food with a pound of pepper on it is a misconception. Good, well-seasoned food in southwest Louisiana will definitely have a zing; the cayenne tends to sneak up on you, catching you in the back of your throat, and you notice you start to perspire after about six or eight bites. But if Cajun food burns your mouth, it means you've got too much pepper in it. Marc Savoy, a musician and accordion-builder in Eunice, Louisiana, and his wife Ann are very involved in the preservation of Cajun culture. In Les Blank's marvelous documentary film about Cajun and Creole cuisine, "Yum! Yum! Yum!", he tells an amusing story about how he took his family to Disneyland. They stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, which had a nice restaurant. They decided to dine there, and they saw a listing on the specials board for "Cajun Fish". Marc mischeviously said, "Let's see what they mean by this, "so when the waitress came to take their orders he played dumb and asked her (in his thick Cajun accent), "What is this word'Cajun', what does that word mean?" She was honest and said she didn't know, but she thought it meant a style of cooking from New Orleans. "She didn't even know that there was a whole culture attached to it," Marc said, "she just thought it was a style of cooking." And what's more, the New Orleans cooking style is Creole, not Cajun. So he went ahead and ordered it, and when it arrived he said it was a nice piece of fish, but he found it inedible because it was "absolutely encased in pepper", with a crust of cayenne. "I wrapped it in my napkin and took it back to our room, went into the bathroom and washed all the pepper off. After that, it was a pretty good piece of fish ..." Also, most Cajuns generally do not cook with hot chiles such as jalapenos, habaneros, etc. In the vast majority of all dishes you'll see that are prepared by actual Cajuns, the only main seasonings you'll see are salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper. Sometimes the wide variety of hot sauces made in Louisiana are used in cooking a swell.

Submitted By SAM LEFKOWITZ On 08-12-95

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