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Eating in New Orleans
New Orleans Food Comes from Many Cultures
New Orleans is one of the most blended cities you can visit. It was founded by the French brothers Iberville and Bienville, and its early settlers were the French. Then, it became part of Spain, and a Spanish influence was added. During the American Revolution, Spain became concerned Louisiana would become a target of the British, so Spain recruited a force of defenders and settlers from its possession, the Canary Islands. Then, France once again controlled Louisiana until Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803. Later, waves of other ethnic groups came to the area, and the cuisine that emerged is unique, tasty, and known the world over.
So, what should a visitor to New Orleans order? For the best experience you do not have to go to the big, expensive restaurants. Many smaller local eateries can serve food with that great taste.
Seafood is plentiful, but many seafood restaurants only serve fried seafood. These seafood restaurants may offer fried fish, fried oysters, and fried shrimp, with some also offering fried softshell crab. Some offer only catfish as the fish dish, while others may offer trout fixed as trout almandine or another trout dish, and even pair the trout with lumped crabmeat or shrimp as a topping. If you do order a seafood dish, expect French fries unless otherwise stated. And, a seafood platter will often be served with fried fish, shrimp, oysters, and possibly for an upcharge soft shell crabs. Alongside a basic seafood dish are often tartar sauce and remoulade sauce. Some places also add a cole slaw.
One oddity is most places serve fried shrimp peeled except that the tails are left on.
Boiled seafood is a staple in the local diet, but can be messy to eat. If a restaurant does serve boiled seafood there is often a bib and special tools for cracking shells and extracting the meat from crabs, and a container for the empty shells. Boiled shrimp are less messy to eat. Some smaller restaurants serve boiled seafood, and do not care about the time it takes to consume the seafood because people order, then order more. With boiled seafood the seasoning makes the unique taste, and some places may make the food too spicy for some people’s taste.
Continue reading for some specific food items to watch out for, and do not be surprised if an expensive restaurant does not carry what you want.
Gumbo is different everywhere. There is no one recipe. It is a soup dish filled with basically whatever the cook wants to toss in. Often okra is added to give the dish more body, and the items tossed in can be meat of seafood. I prefer the seafood gumbo, where shrimp, crab meat, and if it is really special oysters are cooked in the pot and served. Here the crab is the blue crab of the region, and occasionally a large piece of crab, or a claw or two, will show up in your serving.
Some places use sausage, chicken, or both, and may combine these with seafood. I prefer seafood only. The sausage and chicken detract from the flavor of the dish at least in my opinion, and some sausage adds a greasy component that is unwanted.
Gumbo is served over rice. The rice is cooked separately, and added to the gumbo. The rice helps make this a more filling dish, and should always be included.
Po Boy Sandwiches
The po boy sandwich is unique to New Orleans. What makes a sandwich a po boy is the bread, and it is as simple as that.
Many large restaurants offer po boy sandwiches, but a good sandwich shop is where the locals get theirs. Any meat or seafood can be used, but the original po boys were made with gravy and debris from roast beef. The debris is the small pieces of roast beef that break off during cooking.
Historically, the po boy originated during a strike by streetcar and bus workers. A local restaurant made these sandwiches and sold them to the strikers for a nickel, and the po boy sandwich nourished the families of many of those who were on strike. The idea took hold, and now this is an area food.
While any meat can be used, roast beef is perhaps the most popular, and it is now served with much more meat than the original version. It can be a rather sloppy sandwich to eat, since most places are much too generous with the gravy. However, if you ask for light gravy you will have an epicurean delight.
When ordering a po boy, speak the language. Ask for your po boy dressed. This will get shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and probably dill pickle slices piled on, and mayonnaise if you do not request that it be withheld. A few places substitute cabbage for the lettuce, a practice I wish would stop. Dressed has a specific meaning, and if they deviate they should say so.
Po boys other than roast beef can also be dressed, but the mayonnaise is not added if it clashes, such as a veal po boy that has red tomato sauce and meatballs.
You can ask for a change, such as mustard. Have the sandwich as you like. And be aware that some places have dropped the pickle during the economic slowdown.
Red Beans and Rice
Red beans and rice is a comfort food, and has been part of the local tradition for years. This dish takes time to prepare properly. The first step is to soften the red beans. This takes soaking in water, along with some seasoning, for hours. Traditionally, this is a Monday dish, and many restaurants offer this dish only on Monday. Monday was wash day, so people would put the red beans in a pot of water and go about their business. After the washing finished the softened red beans would be cooked.
Some restaurants still offer red beans only on Monday, and they plan for a large amount to be needed once a week. They can set a pot of seasoned water full of red beans aside in the morning, and cook a large pot at lunch time. A restaurant that spreads its sales of red beans over the week, and makes them available every day, may be using canned beans. There is no reason to pay restaurant prices for canned red beans. I would look for a place that only serves red beans on Monday to have a better chance of a quality meal.
Red beans are often seasoned with ham, or sausage. Sausage or even pork chops can be serves alongside the red beans. The sausage might be Andouille, giving a Cajun twist, hot sausage or smoked sausage. Ham chunks can be included in the dish. A large pot of red beans cooked slowly with a ham bone slowly flaking off bits of meat is considered the best way to prepare the dish.
The companion of rice is usually served under the red beans to help absorb the tasty liquid portion to the dish.
Jambalaya is a rice dish with the rice seasoned well, and some people season it too well. It contains a mixture on any one or more of chunks of chicken, chunks of turkey, sliced sausage of some kind, often Andouille, or even boiled and peeled shrimp. This is a staple, and could be considered a comfort food.
Barbecued shrimp is a shrimp dish served in a pool of melted, seasoned butter. The shrimp often still have the shells on, and can be a bit messy to peel and eat, but have a delightful taste. You may want to pass on this if you are on a serious diet. The shrimp are not fried for this dish, rather are grilled, but the dripping butter can add on calories.
This dish is served as either an appetizer or as a meal. Oysters are cooked then served in the open shell, or as is said on the half shell. This is covered with a seasoned liquid that included parmesan cheese among other components. The oysters are served on a dish accompanied by sliced po boy or similar bread. The bread is used to soak up the liquid, since it is where most of the taste is.
Blue crabs are boiled, picked and made into a stuffing that is eaten. King crabs and snow crabs simply will not substitute here. The crab is bakes and served, often in a small dish shaped like a crab shell, although the use of real crab shells is a possibility.
Home Cooking from Southern Louisiana
An excellent choice for a cookbook written for everyone focusing on Louisiana cuisine.
Shrimp Creole and Crayfish Etouffee (Also spelled crawfish etouffee.)
These are two rice based dishes, and both have a red gravy that is more liquid than what one might use over spaghetti. The more common of these dishes is crayfish etouffee. It is the dish of greater substance, although either of these dishes are less filling than most other menu items. These are both comfort foods that will not fill you up too much. Each has a distinctive taste, and this is due to the sauce. They taste different from each other.
These dishes are great if you wish to add a small house salad, or an appetizer or two.
This is a sandwich that contains various meats, usually ham and hard salami and a cheese, and is filled with an olive salad. This sandwich owes its presence to the Italians, in particular the Sicilians, who came to the area. It is served on a round bread and is difficult to finish. Many restaurants offer half muffulettas on their menus, and some even might offer a quarter muffuletta, which is all many people can consume in one sitting.
If you want to eat like the locals, eat where the locals eat, not in the restaurants seeking the tourist trade. Sure, a world class chef can be creative and come up with new and exciting dishes, but the old reliable dishes are also new to you and should be experienced. Many nice restaurants will be happy to fix the items above, and in the way one from the area would recognize. And, neighborhood restaurants are often priced lower than those looking for tourists.
Oh, one final note for you to consider. New Orleans has several small breweries, each making unique beverages. You may want to sample a couple of these.