Melting Pot Cookery: Jambalaya’s Multicultural Heritage and the Creation of an American Classic

Jack Hughes 10 January 2020
Image Credit: Flickr

Jambalaya is an American culinary classic, a dish that celebrates all that is multicultural and vivacious about the country, most notably the region around New Orleans. The rice dish, sumptuous in its use of meat, fish and vegetables, has also extended its reach all over the globe, and now you can find it in many a local eatery, from Soho to Sydney. It is all of the major food groups in one pot after all, which makes it quintessential comfort food.

Looking at a steaming bowl of jambalaya, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was related to paella, that staple of Spanish cuisine. Indeed, the resemblance is uncanny; but does Lousiana not have its roots in French culture? Yes, but the Spanish also had a crucial role to play.

Whilst Louisiana’s main settlers, and cultural contributors, have been the French, there was a period from 1762-1800 when the area was controlled by the Spanish. In 1800, the Louisiana Territory was taken back by Napoleon and restored as part of the French Empire, and was then sold to the United States in 1803 for fifteen million dollars under what was later known as the Louisiana Purchase.

The thirty-eight years the Spanish spent in control of Louisiana was plenty enough for them to leave a mark on the region’s culture. An aspect of this cultural melange was the Spaniards’ desire to introduce to the area flavours of their homeland. Paella was one of the first dishes they tried to recreate, however, they could not get their hands on one of the principal ingredients of the Valencian speciality: saffron. The stamens of crocuses give paella its vibrant yellow hue, an ingredient the Spanish substituted with the much more readily available tomato. It was with this substitution that red jambalaya, also known as Creole jambalaya, rose to prominence.

French influence in the region never disappeared and came back to the fore after the French reacquisition of 1800. As the French Empire grew, spices were brought from the Caribbean to Louisiana and this helped mould the flavour profile of modern jambalaya. The dish became more and more popular, and with this emerged a new style of the dish called brown, or Cajun jambalaya. This take on jambalaya was much more highly seasoned, included oil, a wider array of meats and vegetables and, most importantly, contained no tomatoes (the further away you got from New Orleans, the more difficult it was to buy them).

One of the defining aspects of either Creole or Cajun jambalaya is the inclusion of sausage. Nowadays, French andouille sausage is used a lot, as its firm texture and smoky flavour is gutsy enough to stand up to the rest of the ingredients in the dish. Sausage was, however, a late addition to the jambalaya party. By the mid-19th century, German immigration to Louisiana was at a record high, and the immigrants who settled in the region brought with them their love for all things Wurst. Within very little time, the sausage had become one of the centrepieces of the Louisiana dish.

Jambalaya is a dish influenced by many Old World cultures that is in itself unique. Nothing quite compares to a big bowlful of this Mardi Gras favourite to make the world feel like a better place. The combination of meat and seafood also makes this dish ultra decadent and perfect for any special occasion.

 

Image Credit: Flickr

 

 

Easy Jambalaya (Serves 4)

1 tbsp oil
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 bell peppers, chopped
Salt
Black pepper
500g boneless skinless chicken breasts/thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces.
1 tsp dried oregano
175g chorizo, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp tomato puree
500ml chicken stock (from a cube)
400g tin chopped tomatoes
250g long grain rice (basmati, for instance)
2 tsp Cajun seasoning
500g raw prawns

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and bell peppers, season with salt and pepper, and soften for 5 minutes. At this point, stir in the chicken and the oregano. Cook for about 5 minutes until the chicken is golden, and then stir in the chorizo, garlic, and tomato paste. Let this cook for a minute or so, until the mixture is fragrant.
Add the chicken broth, chopped tomatoes, rice and Cajun seasoning to the pan. Reduce the heat a little, cover the mixture with a lid (or plate), and allow to cook for around 20 minutes, or until the rice is fully cooked.
Add the prawns to the pan and cook, uncovered, until pink (this will take 3-5 minutes). Serve!