Recently, a reader asked the question, "What is the difference between Soul Food, Creole Food, and Cajun Food?" So, this seemed like a good time to explain the culinary differences between these three popular Southern cuisines.
Although quite different from Soul Food, please keep in mind that over time, the lines of distinction between Cajun and Creole cuisines have faded and intermingled and with that comes many conflicting views. I have conversed with 'cooks' and chefs from Louisiana on the subject and have read hundreds of pages in books and websites to come up with the simplified definitions I am providing here. However, I am in no way the definitive authority on the subject! I simple enjoy the delicious food and learning more about the origins of the cuisines, the people, and the places where they once lived!
According to my research, the term 'Soul Food' became popular in the 1960s as a way to describe the cultural spirit of the 'soul' satisfying dishes of African American cuisine. However, the roots of this unique cuisine go back to the days when owners of African slaves fed them as little as possible of what is termed 'throwaway food' – pigs' feet, oxtail, ham hocks, chitterlings (pig small intestines), pig ears, hog jowls, tripe and skin. Slave cooks quickly adapted their cooking to include local vegetables and herbs to turn these foods into delicious dishes that have become timeless American classics.
Black-eyed peas, grits, chitterlings, ham hocks, and collard greens are probably the dishes most commonly thought of when we think of 'Soul Food'.
Cajun and Creole
The comparison between Cajun and Creole Cuisines that I have heard over and over again is that Cajun food is 'country food' while Creole food is its 'refined cousin'. Although there are similarities –both cuisines rely on the 'holy trinity' (onion, celery, bell pepper) as well as flavorful seasonings – I find that definition a little too weak.
During the 18th century, the governing Spaniards declared that all residents of New Orleans that were of European decent be referred to as Creoles. Soon the word Creole began to imply a cultured, elegant person living in and around New Orleans. Creole cooking is a combination of the best French, Spanish, Mediterranean, Caribbean, and African cuisines; full in flavor, with rich, buttery cream sauces. The influence of the Spaniards introduced peppers, rice, and tomatoes. Italian immigrants in the early 1800s added pasta and tomato sauces.
Classic Creole dishes include Shrimp Remoulade, Gumbo, Oysters Bienville, Shrimp Creole, Red Beans and Rice, Eggs Sardou, and Grillades.
Cajun cooking is a combination of French and Southern cuisines. In 1785, 1,600 French speaking Acadians, forced to leave Nova Scotia by the British, ended up in Southwest Louisiana. Forced to sell the best of what they farmed, fished, or hunted, the Acadians or Cajuns as they became know as, created flavorful and delicious meals from what was left. Traditionally having large families to feed, the Cajuns supplemented rice with white meat, game, or river creatures such as crawfish. Cajun cooking often begins with a dark roux and animal (usually pork) fat. Although it can be spicy hot, it is the flavorful seasonings and ingredient combinations that make Cajun dishes so delicious.
A few favorite Cajun dishes include Gumbos, flavorful Andouille and Boudin sausages, and Crawfish Étouffée.
I think that Tom Fitzmorris, a noted New Orleans restaurant critic says it best in his article for Tabasco, "I say, stop thinking about it [the differences]. Just eat it."
A few resources:
Chef John Folse has a great show on PPS called 'Taste of Louisiana with Chef John Folse'.
Chef Paul also has a PPS show called 'Chef Paul Prudhomme'.
Both of these extraordinary chefs not only do cooking demos but they share wonderful stories about their rich culture.