Learning to cook, The Big Easy way
A TASTE OF LIFE - Heny Sison (The Philippine Star) - November 27, 2014 - 12:00am

During my recent trip to visit my daughters, I chanced upon familiar places that would make an Anne Rice fan weep in sheer admiration. Being able to walk down the streets of The Big Easy was an adventure all its own, and learning how to cook proper Louisiana food is an entirely different story.

As the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple kept my daughters occupied with work and study, I decided to make my time useful by exploring one of America’s rich culinary heritages: Louisiana cooking. Armed with curiosity and determination, I enrolled in a course at the Institute of Culinary Education that aimed to teach the essentials of Creole and Cajun cooking.

Cajun and Creole are two distinct cultures, and while over the years they continue to blend, there is still a vast distinction in Louisiana, and both have their own unique stories. Cajun food is famous for being very well seasoned, which is sometimes misunderstood as spicy. Seasoning is one of the most important parts of Cajun cooking, and that comes from much more than a heavy helping of cayenne pepper. The holy trinity of Cajun cuisine utilizes onion, celery and bell pepper (rather than carrots) to provide a flavor base for many dishes.

Creole food is a blend of the various cultures of New Orleans including Italian, Spanish, African, German, Caribbean, Native American and Portuguese, to name a few. Creole cuisine is thought of as a little more cultured or aristocratic, compared to Cajun fare. Traditionally, slaves in the kitchens of well-to-do members of society prepared the food. Due to the abundance of time and resources, the dishes consisted of an array of spices from various regions and creamy soups and sauces. A rémoulade sauce, for example, which consists of nearly a dozen ingredients, would not typically be found in Cajun kitchens. Creole cuisine has a bit more variety, because of the easier access Creoles had to exotic ingredients and the wide mix of cultures that contributed to the cuisine. That’s why you find tomatoes in Creole jambalaya and not in Cajun jambalaya, or why a lot of times you find a Creole roux made with butter and flour while a Cajun roux is made with oil and flour.



Under the tutelage of chef Sam Kadko I was taken on a culinary journey of authentic Louisiana dishes, starting with the classic Oyster Bienville, a traditional oyster dish in New Orleans cuisine. Ingredients include shrimp, mushrooms, bell peppers, sherry, a roux with butter, Parmesan cheese and other lighter cheeses, as well as breadcrumbs. The oysters are baked in the shell or can be made in a small casserole dish or au gratin dish. We whipped up Spicy Creole Shrimp Rémoulade, made of cooked shrimp in a mixture of whole or diced tomatoes, the three staples of onion, celery and bell pepper, spiced with hot pepper sauce and/or cayenne-based seasoning, and served over steamed or boiled white rice. Then there was Crawfish Etouffee, where the crawfish (or any shellfish, for that matter) is drenched in a sauce that is more seasoned and slightly thicker than a typical stew. We made Grillades and Grits which, as suggested by the name, is a mixture of cut-up pieces of meat with the meat cut into medallions, pounded flat, seasoned and dredged in flour. The meat is then browned and braised in a flavorful liquid made up of roux and chopped or crushed tomatoes. Jambalaya Classique, meanwhile, is made in three parts, with meat and vegetables completed by adding stock and rice. Gumbo Z’ Herbes is a heavily seasoned stew-like dish that combines several varieties of meat or seafood with a gravy-like texture comparative to our local mechado; and the quintessential Dirty Rice, a traditional Creole dish made from white rice which gets a “dirty” color from being cooked with small pieces of chicken liver or giblets, green bell pepper, celery, onion and spices cayenne and black pepper

There were more exotic dishes such as a mixture of orange peel, cinnamon sticks, lemon peel, cloves, brandy and liqueur used to steep Café Brulot, which we enjoyed with bread pudding with bourbon sauce.

To learn the distinction between Creole and Cajun cooking in relation to Louisiana cuisine is a fascinating journey of culture, good food and history, I discovered the different shades of the lives of the immigrants, their cooking techniques and the available resources they had back then in order to come up with such unique dishes. Truly, a civilization tells its stories through food, and you can do so yourself by visiting the real New Orleans, beyond the Mardi Gras festivities, to enjoy the food, the music and ultimately the people that earn New Orleans the name The Big Easy.

My next stop: New Orleans, Louisiana for more of my food trip and culinary adventure.

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