By Jessica Russo
We promise you one thing: when you’re in New Orleans, your main focus will be what you’re eating next. Because of its reputation as a melting pot, New Orleans’ unique food scene is rich with influence from diverse cultures. You’ll taste Italian influence in muffuletta, French influence in beignets and étouffée, Spanish influence in jambalaya, and Haitian & West African influences in countless dishes, including red beans and rice.
The blend of these cultures created the native Louisiana cuisines we know today, Creole and Cajun, and make up most of the iconic food found in New Orleans. While Creole and Cajun cuisines are quite similar, there are subtle differences in preparation and seasonings. One thing remains true, though--from gumbo to jambalaya, Creole and Cajun chefs swear by the “holy trinity," which is simply a base of onions, bell peppers, and celery. Now that you know the story behind the food, it’s time to try it. Get ready for savory, sweet, and spicy! Here are the foods you must try when visiting New Orleans.
Known as the official dish of Louisiana, gumbo is, without a doubt, a must-try when visiting New Orleans. This signature stew-like soup reflects traditions spanning multiple cultures and comes in two main versions: seafood gumbo with shrimp and crab, or gumbo with cajun chicken and andouille sausage. A third version has recently emerged as a vegetarian option: gumbo z'herbes. All three versions have the same spicy, savory, velvety roux, and they’re all served over rice to complete this hearty meal. If you’re like us, you’ll order a different version each day.
2. Crawfish étouffée
The word étouffée literally translates to “smothered” in French. Starting with the Cajun/Creole “holy trinity” base of veggies, crawfish étouffée combines crawfish or shrimp, tomatoey roux, and butter to create a rich seafood gravy that’s served over rice. It’s also served as a topping for other dishes like sausages and leafy greens!
Piled high with lettuce, tomato, and pickles, packed with fried shrimp, catfish, or chicken, slathered with sauce or mayo, then served between two long pieces of French bread (whew!), po’boys are WAY more than just a sandwich. Why is is called a po'boy? Legend has it that this New Orleans classic was born during a 1929 streetcar strike. The Martin Brothers Restaurant vowed to serve the strikers for free, and they asked local baker John Gendusa to invent a filling, yet inexpensive sandwich. When strikers came to get one, the kitchen workers said, “here comes another poor boy!” This inexpensive sandwich was so delicious that it got passed down for generations and is now simply called a “po'boy,” eaten by the rich and poor.
4. Red Beans and Rice
Mmm, a slow-cooked, hearty dish combining pork, kidney beans, herbs, and spices (and, of course, the “holy trinity"), all over fluffy white rice. Whether served as a side dish or a full meal, red beans and rice is a dish regularly eaten by New Orleans natives. Here’s a snippet behind the culture of this dish: red beans and rice was traditionally made on Mondays (laundry day) because this easy-to-make dish was the perfect meal to throw together on a labor-intensive day!
Think Spanish paella, but with West African and French influence (we told you: melting pot!). Jambalaya is the dish many people think of when they hear “New Orleans.” This iconic dish is a delicious medley of andouille sausage, chicken, crawfish and vegetables, all mixed with fluffy rice. Not too spicy, but always with a kick, jambalaya should be at the top of your New Orleans food bucket list.
Raw, fried, chargrilled, Rockefeller...however you eat 'em, they're gonna be some of the best oysters you've ever had. Oysters are a huge part of New Orleans cuisine. Even if the thought of oysters makes you go “ew,” you should try Louisiana oysters; they’re unlike any other! Louisiana serves up some of the biggest, freshest oysters available.
Fun fact: Louisiana actually owes much of its oyster success to Croatian immigrants who became oystermen in Louisiana. To put it simply, they're responsible for building the giant commercial oyster industry we know today!
Ahhh. There is nothing like sinking your teeth into a muffuletta sandwich. These large, round sandwiches are filled with Italian deli meats, cheese, and homemade olive salad. Sure, you might not think “New Orleans” and expect an incredible Italian deli sandwich, but this is a delicious surprise you’ll want to try. Muffuletta typically comes in a whole round or a half (a whole can feed 4 people) and is served at room temp. Where’s the best spot to get one? Everyone will give you the same answer: Central Grocery and Deli, located on Decatur Street in the middle of the French Quarter. In fact, Salvatore Lupo, the Sicilian founder of this old-school shop, is famous for creating the muffuletta!
Mm, mm, mm--beignets are always a good idea. This French donut is reminiscent of a fritter or zeppole but is somehow...dare we say...better? Covered (and we mean covered) in powdered sugar, these sweet treats are served up straight out of the fryer and go great with a cafe au lait or a cup of chicory coffee. Many cafes serve beignets in New Orleans, but Cafe Du Monde is in a league of its own (and yes, it’s worth the wait).