For Louisiana chefs, Creole versus Cajun cooking is like night versus day. If you didn’t grow up surrounded by the food culture of the region, however, the differences might be much more subtle. In fact, as cringeworthy, as it is for folks from New Orleans or Baton Rouge, some even use the terms interchangeably.
Referring to both types of cooking as the same is not recommended in the Deep South, but don’t worry. Here we will look at the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine, the origin of each, the similarities they share and some recipes that highlight the best of their flavors.
The conversation about Creole and Cajun cuisine is not a chicken-or-egg discussion — Creole cooking came first. It dates back to 1700s New Orleans, founded by the French in 1718 as Nouvelle-Orléans, and ruled by the Spanish for most of the final four decades of the 18th century.
The word Creole stems from criollo, a word American-born Spanish and Portuguese people of the day used to describe themselves. As for the cuisine, Creole’s culinary influences are from the many cultures that helped shape New Orleans in its early days, including but not limited to the French, Spanish, Portuguese, West African, Sicilian, Irish, Native American and Caribbean ways of life.
During these early days, Creole food was considered luxurious and upscale, prepared mainly for wealthy European settlers.
ORIGINS OF CAJUN CUISINE
Cajun cuisine came to Louisiana during the second half of the 18th century, after the British forced French settlers out of the Acadia region of Canada. A large segment of the population settled in Southwest Louisiana.
The word Cajun is from French Les Acadiens, and the cooking of course also has heavy French influences. However, this group didn’t have access to many ingredients available to the Creole people of New Orleans by way of trade, which forced Les Acadiens to live off the land. That meant lots of wild game and seafood, locally grown vegetables and pigs from farms.
CITY VS. COUNTRY
So, what is the difference between Cajun and Creole? Even before getting into ingredients, methods and flavors, one way many Louisianans describe the difference between Creole and Cajun food is by region. Creole cuisine is city food, specifically from New Orleans, while Cajun food is from the rural or country areas of Southwest Louisiana.
That dates back to the origins of each. Creole cuisine was born in New Orleans, and the wealthy segment of the population in the city had access to ingredients such as tomatoes, butter, cayenne pepper and okra. On the flip side, the folks who developed Cajun food in the bayou country of Louisiana used ingredients they were able to farm or hunt on their own.
These days, of course, you will find Cajun food in New Orleans and Creole food outside of New Orleans. Because Cajun food originated in the country, many believe that’s where you will find the most authentic representations. Many feel the same about Creole food and New Orleans.
The ingredients of many Creole and Cajun dishes can be very similar, but there are a couple of main generalizations that tend to hold true:
Generally speaking, Creole cuisine often uses tomatoes, while Cajun food does not. There are exceptions, of course, but early Creole cooks had access to canned tomatoes from Sicily. To this day, many Creole sauces include tomatoes or tomato puree, while Cajun dishes usually don’t.
It’s another generalization, but Creole dishes are more apt to use butter as their source of fats, while Cajun cuisine more often uses vegetable oil or lard (or both).
Another way the differences between Cajun and Creole cooking are generalized is an old saying — “Creole cooking feeds one family with three chickens, Cajun cooking feeds three families with one chicken.”
It’s not to be taken literally, but the saying highlights common perceptions of each style. Creole cuisine is luxurious, refined and sometimes indulgent with its ingredients. Cajun cooking, meanwhile, emphasizes using what you have, even if it means using every part of an animal possible.
CAJUN VS. CREOLE SEASONING
When making a Creole or Cajun dish at home, the recipes will likely call for either Creole or Cajun seasoning. These are simple enough to pick up at the market, but what is the difference between Cajun and Creole seasoning?
Again, the differences are subtle, but in most cases, both Creole and Cajun seasoning include these basic elements:
In many cases, paprika is included more liberally in Creole seasoning mixes than in Cajun mixes. Another difference between Cajun and Creole spices — Creole versions also often include a handful of other ingredients, such as sweet basil, celery seed and white pepper.
WHAT IS ROUX?
Roux is a mixture of fat and flour, usually heated over a stovetop and used to thicken sauces. The longer roux cooks, the darker and more flavorful it becomes. If it gets too dark, however, it will lose its ability to thicken your sauce. The darker your roux is, the more time it will take to thicken your sauce.
CAJUN VS. CREOLE ROUX
The Creole version of roux borrows from France, typically using butter and flour. Because dairy products were not as common in the Acadiana region in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was (and still is) more common for Cajun roux to use vegetable oil, lard or other animal fats (duck, bacon, etc.) rather than butter.
While roux is often cooked on the stovetop, the process can understandably be somewhat tedious and time-consuming. Below is a recipe for an oven-made Cajun roux from the chefs here at The Gregory that will still need some attention, but not quite the constant stirring of a stove top recipe. It might take a bit longer, but it is also less likely to burn.
THE HOLY TRINITY
When asked, “Is Creole the same as Cajun?” you’re starting to realize the answer is most definitely “no.” The styles do have their similarities, however, one being what’s known as “the Holy Trinity,” or simply trinity. The trinity is the Cajun and Creole version of mirepoix.
The traditional version of mirepoix calls for two parts diced yellow onions, one part diced carrots and one part diced celery. A trinity for Cajun or Creole cooking omits the carrots and instead uses green bell peppers. Garlic and parsley are often added to trinity as well.
The combination of roux and trinity is the base of most Creole and Cajun stews and gumbos. Some also use it as a base for other non-Louisiana foods, such as spaghetti sauce.
CAJUN VS. CREOLE GUMBO
While both are delicious options, a common debate in Louisiana pits Creole gumbo vs. Cajun gumbo. For those new to gumbo, it’s a type of stew that originated in West Africa and became popular here in the U.S. in 18th-century Louisiana.
Creole gumbos most often include tomatoes, shellfish and dark roux and often okra and filé powder, an herb made from ground leaves of sassafras trees. Cajun gumbo doesn’t have tomatoes and usually also contains chicken. It’s not uncommon for both Creole and Cajun gumbo to include meats such as ham or sausage as well.
CAJUN VS. CREOLE JAMBALAYA
If you’re ever asked, “Is jambalaya Cajun or Creole,” the answer is yes. Like gumbo, there are Cajun and Creole iterations of jambalaya, loosely defined as a rice-based dish mixed with meat, seafood or vegetables, or a combination of all three.
The main difference from this dish and gumbo is the rice is prepared with the dish, where gumbo is poured on top of white rice. There are many different ways to make jambalaya, all based on your personal preference. Gumbo, particularly the Creole variety, also often contains okra and filé powder, while jambalaya does not.