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What is jambalaya, the iconic dish of Creole and Cajun cuisine (and it’s not just Louisiana’s “paella”)

24 mayo, 2021

Although it seems that American culture has conquered the world, its gastronomy is still a great unknown, at least outside of the fast food. In reality, such an extremely large country with so many different regions also has a very varied cuisine, and if there is one that stands out is undoubtedly the southern, with fascinating dishes such as gumbo, étouffée or the jambalaya.

Usually referred to as “paella or rice with American things”, jambalaya is a perfect example that defines cajun and creole cuisine, completely unique in America. Of humble origin but rich in ingredients and flavors, with a homely and festive soul, southern cuisine is a reflection of that mix of cultures that make Louisiana a gastronomic paradise.

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Southern cuisine, a melting pot of cultures with its own identity

The State of Louisiana is located in the southern part of the United States, bordered by the Mississippi and Pearl rivers, and to the south by the Gulf of Mexico. Its strategic location and the historical evolution of its inhabitants and settlers have gradually shaped a completely unique culture that stands out for its miscegenation, which has its direct reflection in the kitchen.


Inhabited by indigenous Indo-American tribes, in the 16th century the first Europeans arrived from Spain. Since then French and Spanish disputed the territories, establishing different colonies that were leaving their mark in the area. The rise of slavery practices, especially since the end of the 18th century, brought many slaves from africa, becoming a fundamental part of the population and culture of the area.

In this way, southern cuisine is today an example of miscegenation, of fusion of cultures and traditions that have come together to create their own universe from many ingredients. Both the Creole tradition or creole like Cajun -more linked to the French past- they collect that mixture of European, indigenous and Caribbean flavors, enriched with the African influence.


It is a gastronomy that never forget the humblest past, with dishes that combine a multitude of local ingredients taking advantage of both sea and land products. They are family recipes, closely linked to their traditions and festivals, almost always forceful and designed to feed well but without forgetting the flavor and aromas, thanks to the key presence of spices.

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Many of the most popular dishes in southern cuisine were born out of necessity or the adaptation of settlers and slaves to the new land, reinterpreting the cuisine of their places of origin to local circumstances. A) Yes, combining European tradition, cultural miscegenation and New World ingredients, Louisiana was creating a kitchen with its own identity.

Jambalaya: history and evolution of an iconic dish


Jambalaya is the perfect example of this fusion of cultures. Its most obvious direct ancestor is paella, or rather, Spanish rice dishes, that the Hispanic colonists would try to reproduce in American earth when the establishments in the zone began to be established.

The exact origin of the dish is unclear, as is often the case with humble recipes that emerge little by little and gain popularity over the years. The first reference to jambalaya is found in ‘Leis amours de Vanus; vo, Lou paysan oou théâtré‘, 1837, written in Provençal dialect; As early as 1878 the first written and published recipe of which we have news of a more primitive version appears, in the ‘The Gulf City Cook Book’, under the name “jam bolaya”. In 1885, two local cookbooks already included recipes for jambalaya, more similar to how it is known today.

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Apparently, in the absence of saffron in the New World, the Spanish sought to flavor the rice using tomato as the base of the sofrito, and that is today a sign that distinguishes the Creole jambalaya from the Cajun. In parallel, the Cajun heritage population developed their own version of the dish, without tomato, and adding spices and more local ingredients, such as game and fish products typical of wetlands.


Rather than the intention to replicate a particular European recipe, the dish most likely arose simply out of necessity. The Spanish and French would start from a kitchen they already knew to incorporate local ingredients in the creation of a dish that was accessible, simple and, above all, nutritious and energetic. And that is the key to its popularity.

Jambalaya can be cooked in a large pot or casserole to feed many hungry mouths, and the recipe can be adapted to the ingredients available at all times. The addition of different spices makes it a comforting and tasty dish, and the incorporation of products from each culture adds its own local component.


Thus, different variants of the dish were emerging, with different recipes in each family that were passed from generation to generation. To this day, jambalaya remains one of Louisiana’s favorite dishes, each house has its own unique twist, and which is identified with its own culture and traditional home character.

The passion for this dish left homes, becoming one of the favorites to prepare at meetings, fairs and local parties, cooking big pots in the open air to share between neighbors and visitors. It is a dish that is not lacking in the great celebrations and there are even very popular contests, such as the Jambalaya de Gonzales Festival, proclaimed as the “Jambalaya Capital of the World”.

The origin of the name

The word jambalaya It already sounds very exotic and suggestive to us, and its origin is not exempt from certain mystery which further increases its seductive power.


What there seems to be no doubt is that it comes from Spanish Ham Or better, from french jambon -which is the origin of our word-. Pork ham, in fact, seems to be one of the ingredients that many purists do not forgive in a good jambalaya, although there are also many versions that do not include it.

It is believed that african influence contributed the governess to the name, which means rice, being therefore a word born of the need to baptize in some way an increasingly popular dish among the population. Other theories point to the Provençal origin of the term, linking it to jambalaia, which would be a bowl of rice mixed with other ingredients.

A somewhat more fanciful legend attributes the invention to a traveler who, staying in a Louisiana boarding house, asked the cook, Jean, to cook something by “sweeping” or mixing whatever she had. The phrase in French, “Jean, balayez!”, it would derive in “jambalaya”.

Atakapa Native Americans attribute the invention to an indigenous expression equivalent to “bon appetit”, “Sham, pal ha! Already!”, whose pronunciation by Europeans would eventually become the jambalaya known to the whole world today. Legends aside, it is clear that both the dish and its name are the result of a great mix of influences.

What exactly is jambalaya?


Essentially, jambalaya is a mix of meat or fish and seafood with rice, vegetables and different dressings. The land and sea version has become popular, with chicken or pork, sausage and seafood, usually prawns or prawns, although the possibilities for combining ingredients are almost endless.

There are, of course, two great variants: the Creole jambalaya and the Cajun. The Creole version or creole add tomato; the cajun no. The former acquires that characteristic reddish color that also gives it the nickname “red jambalaya”, while the variants of Cajun cuisine tend to have a more toasted and smoked background, since it is common to let the meat and rice stick together. little to the bottom.


The usual vegetables that are not lacking in the sauce are the “holy trinity” of both traditions: onion, pepper and celery. You can also add chives, garlic, carrots or chili peppers. Cajun recipes typically brown meats first before adding vegetables; the Creole version tends to poach them first, before adding the tomato.

As for the protein part, there are jambalaya recipes for all tastes. Being a dish of humble origin, the usual was throw everything that was available, taking advantage of leftovers of anything or making use of local hunting and fishing. And that includes certain products that we are not very used to here:

  • Pig.
  • Ham (usually leftovers).
  • Sausages (the variety andouille It is the most traditional, somewhat smoked) and other sausages such as chorizo.
  • Chicken.
  • Turkey.
  • Duck.
  • Alligator or alligator.
  • Wild pig.
  • Prawns or prawns.
  • River crab.
  • Oysters

Spices and other seasonings can also vary quite a bit. Today there are Cajun spice mixes comfortable to use, despite the fact that the composition can vary a lot. Black and white pepper, paprika, cayenne, bay leaf, thyme, fennel seeds, parsley, oregano or bay leaf are common. Sometimes tabasco-type hot sauce is added, also at the time of serving.

Since there is no canonical recipe, we could say that each teacher has his own booklet in terms of technique. The order of cooking of each ingredient, the amount of rice and broth, the cooking time or the combination of flame and oven add even more variety to this colorful dish.

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Jambalaya is not a dry rice dish, nor is it soupy, the grain should not burn, but neither should it be a pasty paste. It has to be rich in ingredients, spicy and very fragrant, filling and very comforting. A good jambalaya is the one that stays in your memory and makes you want to repeat