Jambalaya isn’t a foreign word that means something else (like many exotic sounding dishes are), and that is appropriate given that it’s a dish not quite like any other. It stands to reason that an individualistic meal should have an original name, and that’s exactly what happened when Cajun and Creole cuisine developed Jambalaya.
This dish features three main components: meat, rice, and vegetables. They’re often all cooked together in a single pan and spiced boldly, in the Cajun and Creole style.
A Louisiana Tradition
The history of Jambalaya cannot be told without mentioning the history of Cajun and Creloe cuisine. Though it’s now largely considered a single conglomerate, Cajun and Creole meant two very different things back in the 1700s when they first developed.
Cajuns were French colonists from Canada who had been banished by the British during their conquest. In turn, they relocated to rural areas of Louisiana and brought with them some of their traditional French cooking sensibilities, modified by their recent experiences in the far North.
Creole, on the other hand, originally referred to the wealthy French and Spanish families in New Orleans. This is why, like in Mexican cuisine, you’ll notice Spanish influences in Cajun and Creole cooking, in addition to French flare. Creole cooking was more elevated and grandiose, as opposed to the Cajuns who simply ate what they could find. Eventually, the term Creole also expanded to include people of color living in the area, and so African and Caribbean influences are obvious in their cuisine.
When it comes to Jambalaya, both Cajun and Creole traditions include recipes for this dish. The only real difference between traditional Cajun Jambalaya and traditional Creole Jambalaya is that the Creole version includes tomatoes, where the Cajun version does not.
In all likelihood, Jambalaya was probably developed as a means to feed large groups of people without requiring too much money or too much effort. Even so, this simple dish is delicious enough that it’s still one of America’s (and certainly one of Louisiana’s) favorites even today.
Everything but The Kitchen Sink
Jambalaya is different from other rice and meat dishes in that it simply requires the cook to throw all of the ingredients into a pot and let the flavors mix together. Though it is often confused with Gumbo, Jambalaya is much thicker, whereas Gumbo more echoes some other ethnic stews.
Unlike some dishes that are carefully balanced with their ingredients, Jambalaya was likely created (and became so popular) because it allows you a wide berth in terms of what you can add while still remaining true to the tradition.
What’s more, despite being largely considered a rice and meat dish, Jambalaya does have a vegetable base. Something called the holy trinity is used in almost all Cajun and Creole cooking; it simply consists of onion, celery, and green pepper. Often, these vegetables are added to a roux and allowed to cook down until they are quite soft.
While its preparation and ingredients are unique, the freedom to make Jambalaya your own through variation is perhaps its most lovable characteristic.
How to Make Jambalaya
Jambalaya recipes will often differentiate between being Cajun or Creole, but this simply refers to whether or not you add tomato. This means that if you choose a Creole version but omit the tomato products, it’s technically Cajun. In reality, all Jambalaya belongs to the nebulus of Cajun and Creole cuisine.
This dish can be prepared with a number of different meats, but this recipe goes for a triple header instead of choosing just one.
- Celery, onion, green pepper (the holy trinity)
- Cajun seasoning (cayenne, paprika, salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder)
- Chicken, shrimp, and sausage
- Chicken stock
Notice that in this version of Jambalaya, Okra is used as a means of thickening the dish rather than a roux. Once your ingredients are prepared, making Jambalaya is a breeze:
- First saute the meat and vegetables separately.
- Mix the sauteed items together with the rice, liquids (stock and tomatoes), and seasonings.
- Cover the mixture and allow it to cook for about half an hour.
Then all that’s left to do is taste your Jambalaya, and add any additional seasoning you may like. The great thing about this dish is that you don’t have to fuss with any sides—they’re already included in the entree.
Tweaking The Recipe
Common Jambalaya variations generally come from the protein source. This dish lends itself to basically any type of meat, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Even more gamey meats like bison or venison that you may feel a bit squirmy about eating on their own can add interesting flavor to Jambalaya. If you strictly prefer seafood, opt for shrimp or a white fish.
The means of thickening Jambalaya also leaves some wiggle room for personal preference. Generally, a roux or okra are the preferred methods for keeping the dish moist without allowing it to become soupy, but if you have a keen culinary mind, the integrity of your Jambalaya won’t be interrupted by a different thickening method.
The holy trinity is pretty non-negotiable for Jambalaya, but that’s not to say you can’t add extra vegetables in addition to the big three. Obviously, some variations call for tomatoes, but that’s not the only thing you can add. Corn, potatoes, green beans, and mushrooms are all common in Cajun and Creole cuisine, so if any of those sound like welcome additions to your Jambalaya, don’t hesitate to throw them in.
Jambalaya is a dynamic kind of comfort food: it’s filling, hearty, and flavored to the hilt; plus, it takes significantly less time to make than many other comparable dishes. Do yourself a favor and throw some rice, meat, and veggies in a pot with a healthy helping of Cajun seasoning, then enjoy the work that the flavors will do for you.