What is Cajun Food?

Im here to tell that despite some misconceptions, cajun food is not just spicy food. 

As a Cajun, every time you say that you may as well be shouting into the void. That, along with the fact that Gumbo is not a soup. Most restaurants outside of Louisiana falsely perpetuate these ideas of what Cajun food is. Many people outside of Louisiana hardly know what Cajun food actually is.

My mother is Cajun which has always had a large impact on the food I ate growing up. I can still remember the moment when I realized that not everyone had a rice cooker, arguably the most important appliance in my household. And the moment when I first said boudin around my friends and was met only with blank stares.

She grew up in Louisiana, the birthplace of Cajun cuisine. I’ve visited often and even lived there for awhile, always missing the amazing food when I left. The thought of a po’boy from Olde Tyme Grocery in Lafayette is enough to make me salivate right now.

Cajun food has a rich history with French influence, as the Cajun people are descended from French immigrants to America. French cuisine was adapted to the environment and the people who lived in America helped with this adaptation, including native peoples and African people.

If it’s bland, it’s not Cajun food. Cajun food is not always spicy, but it always has spice. When it is spicy, it should never be so hot that it overpowers the flavor. Instead, the Cajun “holy trinity” of onions, celery, and green bell peppers contribute to the flavor along with spices like pepper, salt, and cayenne.

A large part of the culture of food in Louisiana is the people you share it with. Eating was and is often a neighborhood affair, with boils that have a large amount of food for a lot of people and a history of fais-do-dos, a party full of music, friends, and most importantly, food. The ongoing joke of my Cajun half of the family is that when we’re around each other we’re either eating or thinking about what we’re going to eat next, usually both at the same time.

When it comes down to it, seafood like fish, crab, oysters, crawfish, shrimp andouille sausage, chicken, rice, even alligator are some of the common ingredients of Cajun cuisine. Typical dishes include gumbo, etouffee, courtbullion, jambalaya, rice and gravy, boudin, po’boys, dirty rice, bisque, I could go on.

Trying to Find Good, Authentic Cajun Food in Boston

When researching the options for Cajun food in Boston, I noticed that Yelp seemed to have almost no reviews from an actual Cajun person. So, I had to do some digging myself. Fortunately, you can tell a lot, just from looking at the menu.

The first restaurant I looked into was Loui Loui. Immediately, it had jambalaya listed as a soup, so that place was out. Jambalaya is a mix of rice, meat, and vegetables like most Cajun food, but jambalaya typically has andouille and is cooked with the rice, instead of the rice being added later. Gumbo being mistaken as a soup is marginally acceptable as, depending on how much rice an individual adds to it, it can be quite liquidy. Jambalaya is not soaked in liquid though, it’s not even close to a soup.

The next I researched was Holly Crab. That earlier sin I mentioned about gumbo being labelled a soup? Holly Crab committed it right out of the gate. I was a little curious about the rice balls. Although Cajun food almost always has rice, I’d never heard of rice balls before and apparently, they are instead a staple of Japanese cuisine.

My Experience at a Cajun Restaurant

I ended up going to Bootleg Special, intrigued by the prevalence of the seafood boils as well as the unique recipes like crawfish mac and cheese as well as beignets with assorted toppings that I thought could be interesting. This was also the only place where I could find a review written by someone who went with people from Louisiana and said it tasted like home.

My friend ordered a fried oyster po’boy, a traditional Cajun sandwich with some sort of meat like roast beef or fried seafood and French bread, traditionally with lettuce, tomatoes, and mayonnaise as well. Like a much of Cajun food, it’s very simple, but so good.

It was piled high with fried oysters, a good sign for a po’boy. However, instead of a typical mayonnaise, it came with a remoulade sort of sauce, mayonnaise-based but more flavorful. In po’boys, the star is typically whatever meat is on it and the remoulade covered the taste of the fried oysters a bit.

I had a jumbo Gulf shrimp boil with the signature “Bootleg” sauce that is described as a mixture "garlic, butter, lemon with a fiery cajun kick." The sauce was awesome, even if it was slightly too garlic-y. Garlic isn’t typically prevalent in Cajun food. It was a little spicy - although not so much that it covered the flavor. I also ordered the andouille sausage with it. Typically, boils have crab, shrimp, or crawfish with corn and andouille.

Quite possibly the best indicator of real Cajun food is the quality of the andouille. Even in the restaurants in my native state of landlocked Colorado, there are some moderately good Cajun restaurants. However, they all fall short due to the lack of good andouille. Restaurants outside of Louisiana tend to give up on the good sausage, instead flocking to the kind you get from any old grocery store. And you can tell. It’s bland, doesn’t have the satisfying pop that real andouille has, and requires sauce to be edible instead of adding flavor to whatever it’s in.

The real disappointment of the evening was the beignets which come with vanilla ice cream and can be ordered plain, with chocolate hazelnut, bananas foster, and bourbon maple pecan. We ordered the bourbon maple pecan beignets and I will confess they were very good. They weren’t beignets though.

Beignets are made fried dough and have a lot of powdered sugar on top. The main difference between beignets and other fried dough desserts is that beignets are supposed to be light and airy. These beignets were a lot closer to cake donuts with how incredibly dense they were. The best beignets, like those at the infamous New Orleans Cafe Du Monde, have airy pockets and a small mountain of powdered sugar.

So, Where Can You Find Good, Authentic Cajun Food?

The easy answer? Louisiana.

Authentic food outside of Louisiana is just plain hard to find. But, if someone truly puts the effort into making something close and you put the effort into finding it, you can have an awesome culinary experience like the kind that I had at Bootleg Special.

Cajun food is a style of cooking that frequently either gets overlooked or completely misappropriated, but it is one worth exploring, no matter where you are. 

If you ever get tired of the bland food college campus dining halls offer or bored of the same kinds of American foods over and over, go out and find some Cajun food. Literally, spice it up a little.