For those who have never been to New Orleans before, it probably isn’t difficult to name the foods that are iconic, traditional, and associated with NOLA. But it’s not just po’boys, gumbo, beignets and jambalaya. New Orleans has many fusions of different dishes featuring many of its cultures.
What does New Orleans flavor mean?
New Orleans cooking has a very distinctive blend of seasoning, and it leans heavily into its Creole and French roots. Although every restaurant, home cook, and chef will have their own specific blend (often handed down and cooked the same since the start) - most of the time, here are the main seasonings for New Orleans:
- Mustard powder
- Black pepper
- Cayenne pepper
- Sweet paprika
While that is the base for the Cajun seasoning, you will most often find bay leaves and rosemary - plus some special touches that make some recipes stand out. The French influence is seen in the Herbes de Provence - sage, bay leaves, fennel, dill, lavender, oregano, rosemary, and thyme. Parsley, green onions, and bell peppers come into the mix, too.
Where does the New Orleans flavor inspiration come from?
It is important to note that there is a difference between Creole and Cajun, and that includes when it comes to food. Cajun comes from the French settlers, and they have a distinctive Cajun-French accent - and Cajun-style foods.
Creole is less simple to define as it technically doesn’t have a single definition. Creole consists of Hispanic, Caribbean, African, and European descent who may also have French or Spanish ancestry and were born in New Orleans.
While Cajun and Creole foods are native to Louisiana, and you’ll find them throughout NOLA, and they are often used interchangeably, there are some differences.
Creole food often has a rich tomato base and is saucy, while Cajun food doesn’t. Cajun food uses big flavors and is heavy in terms of smoked meats, like boudin (spiced sausage) or jambalaya. A combination of French and Southern flavors.
Creole food can be more complex because there are many influences, including the French influences in Cajun. Creole is heavy on tomatoes, seafood, and local herbs. An example of some of the Creole foods are gumbo with a roux base, redfish court bouillon, and shrimp creole.
With both types of dishes, you’ll find onions, celery, and green peppers - known as the holy trinity. While both options are rich in flavor - they aren’t usually hot - until you add the hot sauce!
What are some of the most popular ingredients in New Orleans?
New Orleans is all about big flavors, and it doesn’t matter if you're going for Creole or Cajun - or anything in between. There are some ingredients that you’ll find time again because they are the heart and tradition of NOLA food.
- Italian Sausage
- Red Beans
So, if you have a week in New Orleans, what dishes should be on your list of food to try?
Ten Dishes To Try In New Orleans
You’ve finally touched down in NOLA, and you have a limited amount of time. You need to make the most of it and don’t have time to wait for check-ins before you want to get started. Throw your bags in luggage storage in New Orleans and head to your first location. You’ll need to decide what is more important in terms of things to try, but here are some must-have dishes.
New Orleans King Cake
It is a sweet treat that should be high up on your list because it is traditionally found most often during Mardi Gras. Brioche-style doubt is shaped into an oval, and filled with jam, custard, or cream cheese, and covered in sprinkles and icing. The colors will be gold, green, and purple, as those are the traditional Mardi Gras colors.
Just like New Orleans, this cake has a secret, too; there is a baby hidden inside, and whoever finds it has to host the next Mardi Gras party or bring the next King Cake.
It is a classic sandwich that is found all over NOLA, from restaurants to food stalls and then some. They are usually hearty, with the stuffing overflowing, and in terms of flavor, you can get much better. They come in a huge range, like Italian sausage, beef, blackened fish, eggplant, grilled chicken, and seafood. Each place will have its own special mixes and types of bread. You’ll find french bread, hoagies, or bread from either Dong Phuong or Gendusa bakery.
Go for a classic friend shrimp po’boy for the most authentic option.
Red Beans and Rice
While on the surface, red beans and rice might sound simple, it features the holy trinity, a lot of seasoning, smoked sausage, and red beans. The rice is steamed, some comes mixed, and some comes served on the side. It is a big comfort dish that is served up in restaurants and street vendors - and NOLA natives will often make it at home, too. Red Beans and Rice have long been used to cook up leftovers - and so the ingredients can vary.
You’ll find the holy trinity here, too, with the thick, sweet, and succulent crawfish. There are other etouffee to try but opt for the crawfish because that is a truly traditional experience. The stew is creamy, thick, and spicy, with chunks of Gulf crawfish, bell peppers, and celery. Crawfish Etouffee is very much a cajun dish, and you’ll find everyone tastes a little different thanks to the generations-old recipes.
Served with either French bread or white rice, a deliciously spiced dish.
If ever there was a dish that screamed New Orleans, it is gumbo. Like the start of any good dish in NOLA, bell peppers, onions, and celery are the base, with a range of chicken, sausage, and seafood in the stew.
While gumbo sounds simple, it is a dish with a wide variety of flavor layers, so each mouthful is actually complex and delicious. The reason you should opt for gumbo any time you can is that it is a community dish - meaning it is designed to be shared with friends and family and strangers with a pot of rice on the side.
New Orleans Muffaletta
For many, the Muffaletta isn’t usually on the list of iconic foods - but it is one of the best sandwiches you’ll ever have. It is a strong favorite for locals, and it is packed with meats, olive salad, and cheese. The bread it is served on is how it goes its name - with a slight adjustment. The bread itself is called muffaletta.
The flavor is punchy with the tang of the olives and the strong savory cheese and meat element. The salad itself is onions, garlic, peppers, and olives - which is why this has such a distinctive flavor. The bread is round, chewy, slightly crispy and dense.
Thanks to the bread, it’s not the lightest snack you’ll have, but it is definitely something to order as you walk around exploring the city.
It is a rice-based dish that has plenty of spices, vegetables, and meat, and it might be as famous as the jazz here. There are a couple of different variations; some are heavy on the Cajun, and others are heavy on the Creole style. The depth in flavor comes from the meats that are used; the seafood, sausage, and chicken give a rich, deep layer of taste to it.
Each protein type brings something new to the dish: the sausages bring some smoke and spice, the chicken adds a tender bite, and the shrimp juices are sweet and delicious. The rice has to be cooked to perfection, or the dish becomes stogy - but you won’t find that in New Orleans!
The Cajun version of the dish doesn’t have the tomato base that the Creole version has - so it is worth trying both types to see which you prefer.
While the savor foods are outstanding, the Banana Foster is a must-try sweet. It was created by Paul Blange back in 1951 and is sweet and indulgent. The dish gets flambeed at the tableside, and you’ll watch the buttery, creamy dish come together in a few seconds. The brown sugar, cinnamon, rum, and banana liquor create a unique flavor.
And what flambeed dessert would be complete without some vanilla ice cream melting over the warm caramelized mixture?
Banana Foster is certainly something for those with a sweet tooth, but for those who aren’t into ultra-rich desserts, get two spoons and share! Either way, seeing the flames rise and fall on the alcohol and melt the brown sugar is unmissable.
For the very adventurous who want to sample some of the over 21 tastes that New Orleans has to offer, NOLA is more than a little famous for its absinthe. There are several absinthe bars in New Orleans so that you can experience a Death in the Afternoon - Living The Gourmet for yourself.0