New Orleans finds itself in its food; meals are both expressions of identity and bridges between the city’s many divisions. In this excerpt from Lonely Planet’s hot-off-the-press New Orleans city guide, we take a tour of the best cuisine in town. And for more New Orleans, check out the rebirth of the Big Easy as a boutique city over on BBC Travel.
Very few meals begin life in Louisiana without a roux (pronounced ‘roo’): flour slowly cooked with oil or butter. Over time, the product evolves from a light-colored ‘white’ roux into a smokier ‘dark’ roux. The final product is used as a thickening and flavoring agent. While deceptively simple, local cooks insist their dishes live or die based on the foundation roux.
No cook is without a personal recipe for this spicy, full-bodied soup/stew, which is sort of Louisiana, foodified. Ingredients vary from chef to chef, but gumbo is almost always served over starchy steamed rice. Coastal gumbo teems with oysters, jumbo shrimp and crabs, while prairie-bred Cajuns turn to their barnyard and smokehouses.
Maybe you call it a submarine, grinder or hoagie. You are wrong. Simply put, a po’boy is an overstuffed sandwich served on local French bread (more chewy, less crispy) dripping with fillings; the most popular are roast beef, fried shrimp and/ or fried oysters, and ‘debris’ (the bits of roast beef that fall into the gravy). When you order, your server will ask if you want it ‘dressed,’ meaning with mayonnaise, shredded lettuce and tomato. Say yes.
Red beans and rice
A poor man’s meal rich in flavor, this is a lunch custom associated with Mondays. Monday was traditionally wash day and, in the past, a pot of red beans would go on the stove along with the ham bone from Sunday dinner. By the time the washing was finished, supper was ready.
Hearty, rice-based jambalaya (johm-buhlie- uh) can include just about any combination of fowl, shellfish or meat, but usually includes ham, hence the name (derived from the French jambon or the Spanish jamón). The meaty ingredients are sautéed with onions, pepper and celery, and cooked with raw rice and water into a flavorful mix of textures.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that New Orleans muffulettas are the size of manhole covers. Named for a round sesame-crusted loaf, muffulettas are layered with various selections from the local Sicilian deli tradition, including Genoa salami, shaved ham, mortadella and sliced provolone cheese. The signature spread – a salty olive salad with pickled vegetables, herbs, garlic and olive oil – is what defines the sandwich, though. It’s a flavorful, greasy mess.
This highly prized butcher-shop specialty is basically a lean chunk of ham, cured with filé (crushed sassafras leaves) and other seasonings, and then smoked until it reaches the tough consistency of beef jerky.
A tasty Cajun sausage made with pork, pork liver, cooked rice and spices. A popular quick bite, especially in Cajun country.
Shaved ice in a paper cup doused liberally with flavored syrup, snowballs are blasts of winter on a steamy midsummer afternoon.
Not so much a dessert as a round-the-clock breakfast specialty akin to the common doughnut, beignets are fl at squares of dough flash-fried to a golden, puffy glory, dusted liberally with powdered (confectioner’s or icing) sugar, and served scorching hot.
A specialty in New Orleans and Acadiana, this custardy creation is a good use for leftover bread. Local variations involve copious amounts of butter, eggs and cream, and will usually come topped with a bourbon-spiked sugar sauce.
Lonely Planet’s top places to eat
You’ve seen the menu of New Orleans’ biggest and best meals, now here are our favorite places to chow down.
- Bacchanal: wine, cheese, bread and a magically lit garden.
- Restaurant August: fine Creole dining in a 19th-century warehouse.
- Elizabeth’s: creative, fun and funky fine dining.
- Cochon Butcher: the pinnacle of Cajun – and carnivorous – cuisine.
- Parkway Tavern: po’boy perfection served in Mid-City Surrey’s Juice Bar.