From spicy gumbo stew to fragrant rice jambalaya: on a culinary journey in New Orleans
We eat our way through the diverse culinary delights on offer in the Big Easy
“There ain’t nothing and nowhere like New Orleans. Even if you’re born here and leave, you always end up coming back. There’s something that keeps pulling you back here – and don’t even get me started on the food.” My chatty Uber driver, Chris, raises a point that keeps recurring throughout my week in the “Big Easy”.
Colonised by the French, taken over by the Spanish, promptly seized by wealthy Americans and injected with African culture during the dark years of the slave trade, New Orleans, or La Nouvelle Orleans, is, at the very least, a cultural melting pot and, at most, a great bubbling cauldron of flavour. Its food offering weighs in above anything else the US has to offer in terms of diversity and depth of seasoning.
While bland shrimp ’n’ grits – a remnant of the puritanical diets of the US’s first British settlers – endures elsewhere in the southern states, New Orleans boasts spicy gumbo stew and fragrant rice jambalaya in its culinary heritage. Equally as vibrant as the city’s music scene – with its brass bands that take to the streets at all hours of the day – its food calls people back.
“Before Hurricane Katrina, there were only 700 restaurants in town and now there are 1,400,” says Harriet Robin of the New Orleans School of Cooking. “This isn’t just catering to the locals; we have people coming here from all over the world now. You can find somewhere great to eat any night of the week and I can guarantee that restaurant will be heaving,” she adds, as she takes her class through the stages of preparing a corn and crab bisque.
Made using a roux, a remnant of the city’s French heritage (the New Orleans School of Cooking also happens to be at the heart of the city’s pretty French Quarter), Robin’s corn and crab bisque is seasoned with Cajun spice – a blend of paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, black pepper, thyme and oregano – brought to Louisiana by its rich melange of European and West African inhabitants.
Positioned where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, the city was also well placed to receive shipments of tropical fruits from the Americas. “We’re a port city, so back in the day, we would get so many shipments of bananas from the Caribbean into the Mississippi River that they’d sometimes arrive over-ripe, so we had to find something to do with them,” explains Anne Leonhard, also of the New Orleans School of Cooking, as she whips up a Bananas Foster, a dessert that involves flambeing a banana in a rich caramel of sugar and butter, and then pouring it, boiling, over a ball of ice cream.
At the colonial Commander’s Palace in New Orleans’s moneyed Garden District, the full expanse of the city’s culinary history is served up across three courses in an indulgent brunch. Regulars such as shrimp gumbo and Bananas Foster swiftly land on white table cloths via bow-tied and waistcoated staff, alongside pecan-roasted gulf fish and aubergine and okra fritto misto. It’s here that New Orleanians come to celebrate, with a live jazz band taking requests, and balloons at every ornately dressed table, attached for no other reason than it’s the weekend. The setting is as rich and diverse as the menu, with each of the three enormous rooms in this historical house hosting 200 covers per sitting.
Elsewhere in New Orleans, chef Eric Cook at Gris Gris has taken those traditional recipes and is serving them up to visitors exactly as his mother or grandmother would have. “I even brought my mom in to teach all my chefs how to make her famous chicken and dumplings,” he says of his most popular dish.
Chef Donald Link’s Herbsaint, a modern culinary institution on St Charles Avenue in the heart of the French Quarter, opened in 2000 and is still full every night of the week. Combining refined French dining with punchy Louisiana flavours, the restaurant serves up dishes such as cornmeal fried oysters with coleslaw and hot sauce, in a relaxed, convivial setting with an open kitchen.
It was at Herbsaint that restaurateur Reno De Ranieri and chef Brian Burns – both former employees of the aforementioned restaurant – met, both out-of-towners attracted to New Orleans for its energy and aura of possibility. Together, earlier this year, they opened Costera, a Spanish coastal-cuisine-inspired restaurant in Uptown. Here, small sharing plates such as pan con tomate (made from a painstakingly prepared tapenade of tomatoes, capers and anchovies) and roasted mushrooms with sourdough croutons topped with egg yolk, reflect Spanish-style tapas, but with added Louisiana flavour.
“It made sense to me to celebrate New Orleans’s coastal position but to do something different to the traditional French-inspired Creole that is so prolific in the area,” says Burns. “It was natural for us to eat in the Spanish sharing style at home, but what I wanted to do was introduce a Louisiana kick to those dishes.” Spanish this is not. The tell-tale signs of Louisiana fare are all over the menu, with spice and citrus adding bold flavours to European elegance. The octopus on the grill is served with butternut squash and beans, while the yellowfin tuna is marinated in sweet chillies.
Throughout the city, the European influence on the kitchen pervades, but it’s always with a punchy hit of Cajun and Creole flavour. Even the French boudoir-esque Bar Marilou, owned by the Parisian Quixotic Projects, is serving up devilled eggs sprinkled in paprika with a crispy rice puff filling thrown in for added texture.
Just like its people, the food in New Orleans is surprising and full of warmth. And I’m already planning my next culinary odyssey back here.
Emirates flies from Dubai to Dallas from Dh5,895. American Airlines flies from Dallas to New Orleans from $241 (Dh885) for the one-hour, 25 minute flight; Etihad flies to Washington, DC, from Dh2,289. Spirit Airlines flies from Washington to New Orleans from $148 for the three-hour flight
Updated: February 18, 2020 08:18 PM