When I found out that my family was going to New Orleans for a week during winter break, I immediately started looking up delicious restaurants and specialty dishes. I learned all about jambalaya, shrimp or crawfish etouffee, beignets, alligator sausage, seafood gumbo and bread pudding. The first full day I was there, I was not about to pass up any chance to try the local fare.
My first meal was at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, where I ordered jambalaya. The dish originated in the Caribbean Islands, and there are two types: Creole and Cajun jambalaya. The first is more common and has meat, celery, peppers, onions, tomatoes, other vegetables, seafood and rice added last. The second has no tomatoes. The taste and complex flavors in the dish reminded me of Spanish paella, the vaunted seafood rice dish. Four strong and immediate flavors hit me when I first took a bite — the smoky chicken, fresh tomato, tangy burst of onions and the zesty spice blend. The texture is similar to that of soupy rice, just barely moist enough so that the rice has weight and sinks in. The moisture made the rice less dry and put more weight in it, so it filled me up, unlike just a bowl of soup or a typical rice dish.
Right after lunch on the same day, we walked around on the streets and saw the original 1862 Cafe Du Monde coffee stand in the French Market. The cafe is famous for its chicory coffee and beignets, which are square pieces of dough that puff up when they are fried and then are covered in powdered sugar. When I read travel websites and blogs, this cafe kept coming up, so I was very excited to experience the hype. I was a little disappointed in the coffee and the beignets, though, because the chicory in the coffee was too strong and left a caramel aftertaste rather than a coffee aftertaste, which reminded me of eating caramel candy. The French originally added chicory to soften the bitterness of the dark roasted coffee, but I prefer to have that strong coffee taste. The beignets also did not taste any better than doughnuts. They made me think of crunchier Krispy Kreme doughnuts without the glaze.
For dinner that night, I decided to add to the list of exotic foods that I have tried, which includes guinea pig, buffalo and kangaroo. I had never had crawfish before, so I added that to my list by having crawfish etouffee. Etouffee is shellfish over rice and a thicker-than-typical stew. The dish is made with a blond or brown roux — a mixture of flour and fat to thicken sauces, soups and stews. The combination of vegetables, spices and meat tasted similar to jambalaya except with less tomato aftertaste, and it was noticeably spicier. I really enjoyed the texture of the crawfish because it was quite similar to that of scallop, a little bit chewy but springy as well. I was thankful that the meal came with two slices of white bread, because it was becoming increasingly salty due to the heavy spices and sauces. As someone who cannot handle any spiciness, I had to drink two large cups of water to balance that out. After this meal, I began to realize that many local dishes were variants of heavily spiced stew paired with rice, an assessment my next few meals proved to be true.
The next distinct dish I ate was alligator sausage and seafood gumbo at Red Fish Grill, located on the legendary Bourbon Street. Gumbo is a full-flavored mixture of meat or shellfish, a thickener and vegetables for seasoning such as celery, bell peppers and onions. Sometimes gumbo is served over rice, and it is usually an appetizer. The alligator meat in the dish added to my list of exotic foods, though it didn’t taste any different from regular breakfast sausage. The overall taste was a combination of seafood with a flavorful spiciness, not just plain bitter spicy. For me, the taste was similar to etouffee even though the dishes are different.
Because I had a small dinner, I needed to supplement it with a great dessert. There was nothing better to end with than double-chocolate bread pudding with white chocolate ice cream and chocolate almond bark. The dessert was cooked to order, and it came puffy and inflated like a successful souffle. The souffle was not sickeningly sweet because the restaurant used dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate, which made it complement the sweeter almond bark and ice cream. Like a perfectly made souffle, the bread pudding was gooey and creamy in the center yet still fluffy, and the chocolate fudge sauce sank into the bread pudding, keeping it warm and moist. The ice cream definitely helped cool down the souffle, and the almond bark added a crunchy texture to the creaminess of the souffle and ice cream.
As my food adventures in New Orleans came to an end, I realized that the city had not won my heart. I didn’t fall in love with the food enough to inspire a return visit, but it was a nice Southern culinary education. I was glad to try all of the strange and exotic new dishes, and I look forward to my next exotic culinary adventure.
Contact Annie Chang at [email protected].