Jambalaya: New Orleans’s Literal Melting Pot
Jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo
For tonight, I’m-a gonna see my ma cher a mi-o
Jambalaya (On The Bayou), Hank Williams, 1952
Jambalaya: A Food So Iconically New Orleans Has A Song Named After It.
Jambalaya is a popular Southern dish of meat, vegetable and rice, popular in Louisiana, and particularly New Orleans. It’s inexpensive, delicious, and adaptable to whatever might already be in your kitchen. Seafood is also a common ingredient in Jambalaya, but local recipes can also include chicken, sausage, or any type of game meat native to the area. The dish is so beloved in the state that Governor John J. “Fox” McKeithen proclaimed Gonzales, Louisiana, “the Jambalaya capital of the world” in 1968, where the annual Jambalaya Festival is held every spring.
Although the exact origin of jambalaya is unknown, it is most likely the result of multiple ethnicities mingling in the port city of New Orleans centuries ago.
The History of Jambalaya
Of the dishes deemed traditional to New Orleans culture, jambalaya may be the most representative of all of the cultures that make up the city’s history. Even the etymology of the name has several stories attached. Some attribute its name to a slurring of the Spanish (jamón) or French (jambon) word for ham with either paella or an African word for rice (variously given as ya, aya, or yaya). The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that jambalaya comes from the Provençal word ‘jambalaia’, meaning a mish-mash, or mixup, and also meaning a pilaf of rice. There is even a phrase from the Atakapa Indians that alludes to its origins — “Sham, pal ha! Ya!” This phrase translates to “Be full, not skinny! Eat Up!” Spanish influence resulted in the current spelling of the name.
There are a great number of recipes for jambalaya, but there are two distinct types: Cajun and Creole. Each is based in the traditions and methods used by the two Louisiana cultures most prominent in our signature food.
Creole jambalaya is likely the version most commonly seen in photos. It is red in color, due to the inclusion of tomatoes — a popular vegetable ingredient in many Creole dishes. It is said that the tomatoes were a New World substitute for saffron, an expensive and hard to obtain spice essential to the Spanish paella this dish evolved from. In cooking Creole jambalaya, the “holy trinity” (the vegetables: onion, celery, and bell pepper) are sauteed together in some kind of cooking oil, with the meat going into soon after. The most common meat used for jambalaya is smoked sausage — standard or andouille — and chicken, though shrimp is often included when in season. Once the meat, and vegetables have browned and caramelized respectively, the stock, rice and tomatoes go in. The entire pot is brought to a boil, covered, and simmers on a lower heat until all of the stock is absorbed and the rice is tender.
Cajun jambalaya, on the other hand, is brownish in color. This is primarily due to the absence of tomatoes, which were not as common an ingredient in Cajun cooking as with Creole. But the cooking method plays a part as well: the meat is cooked first and allowed to brown and caramelize. After that the trinity goes in, the stock is added to dissolve the browned bits, and the rice is added so the whole pot can simmer. This cooking process plus the absence of tomatoes gives Cajun jambalaya its brown hue and its smoky flavor
Jambalaya on the Lighter Side
Making jambalaya a healthier dish without sacrificing the flavor is not that difficult. You can swap out the meats to leaner cuts of chicken, turkey sausage that’s lower in fat and sodium, and more seafood. Stocks and broths also come in lower sodium varieties and using lighter, heart-healthy oils like avocado, olive or coconut oil to brown the meat and vegetables can also help. Whole grain rice or even a rice alternative like grated cauliflower may offend purists, but they can be great sources of additional fiber. Additionally, be conscious of the seasoning mixes you include to add flavor — many of the New Orleans blends like Tony Chachere’s or Zatarain’s have low salt or no salt versions, and both McCormick’s and Mrs. Dash have salt-free blends that can make your tastebuds do a fais-do-do.
To prepare this one-pot meal, brown your “trinity” (onions, celery, bell peppers — and the occasional rogue garlic) in the bottom of a Dutch oven with your oil. Add your sausage, chicken or other meats and brown accordingly. Shrimp cooks faster than beef, pork or poultry, so be sure to keep an eye on your time. After that, add your grain — which you can also lightly brown if desired — and your stock and other extras you want in the pot. Of course, adjust the spices to taste. Cover and simmer until the stock is fully absorbed, making sure you don’t overcook to make the rice too mushy.
You can enjoy freshly made jambalaya with minimal prep and fuss with the help of a meal plan from Sensible Meals that will suit your palate and your healthy lifestyle. Happy eating!