Part of what makes up the myth of New Orleans is its cuisine, so food was very much on our itinerary. I know that a place is more than just the few dishes that it is most known for, but since this was our first time, we wanted to try a bit of what we knew offhand, and then perhaps return for deeper exploration.
A po’boy is a sandwich that consists of a protein—meat, chicken, or seafood—served on New Orleans French bread. It can be as plain or as dressed up as one wishes. There are many theories as to how thee sandwich got its name, one of the most famous and highly contentious ones referring to a streetcar conductor strike in 1929.
This was the first thing I got as soon as I got to New Orleans. We stopped at Voodoo BBQ and Grill, a local fast food chain that serves New Orleans dishes. The sandwich was stuffed with fried shrimp and served with corn mash. The fried shrimp + crisp bread combo was a bit much for me texture-wise, but I still enjoyed the sandwich. Later, L would have a turkey po’boy, and that seemed to taste better to us, since there was a significant, saucy, textural difference between the meat and the bread.
Beignets and Chickory Coffee
There are only a few things on Café du Monde’s menu but most people go there to get just two things: beignets and café au lait made with chickory coffee.
Beignets are French-style donuts that came to New Orleans via Nova Scotia. The square-shaped dough is fried can be served with fruit, jam, powdered sugar, or even savory items.
Chickory coffee is a blend developed in New Orleans during the American Civil War to make up for the coffee shortage. The chicory adds a hint of smokiness to the coffee, and a bit of a chocolatey taste to the café au lait.
At Café du Monde, an order of beignets means three pieces, all of them liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Gumbo, Jambalaya, Red Beans and Rice
Say New Orleans and one of the first things that comes to mind is gumbo. The stew is said to have originated in the 18th century, and consists of stock, meat or shellfish, a thickener (okra, dried and ground sassafras leaves called filé powder, or dark roux), and what is called the “Holy Trinity”—celery, bell peppers, and onions. It is usually served over white rice.
Jambalaya is a rice dish with meat (usually including sausages) and vegetables (always including the Holy Trinity) cooked into it, similar to paella, one of the dishes that inspired it.
Red Beans and Rice is a Creole dish made with beans, the Holy Trinity, spices, and meat cooked with pork bones and served over rice. It’s traditionally cooked on Mondays because the pork bones would come from the ham also traditionally served during Sunday dinner. Also since Monday was laundry day, it was easy to leave a pot of the dish simmering on the stove while one went about one’s chores.
I had the New Orleans Combo, which consisted of a bowl of each dish, at the Gazebo Cafe in the French Quarter. I realise that this wasn’t the best idea, as all of them are hearty and have strong flavors, so they kind of blend into each other. At the same time, having all of them in one go made them easier to compare.
The gumbo and the red beans were very soupy, so you felt like you were eating something that was a stew and a soup. All three dishes had sausages. The jambalaya was very soft and sticky, the rice flavored with the ingredients cooked with it.
Sometimes, I will eat vicariously for friends. A friend said she missed the etouffée and asked if I could eat one for her. I thought, why not?
Though usually made with shellfish, etouffée can be made with chicken as well. The protein is simmered in a sauce made with a blonde roux. It may or may not contain tomatoes (tomatoes don’t figure very much in New Orleans cooking), and depending on who’s cooking it, may have either Cajun or Creole spices. The dish’s origins are pretty recent—it was invented either in the 1920s or the 1950s, again, depending on who you listen to.
The one I had at Pier 424 Seafood Market in the French Quarter was red instead of blond, and tasted like the gumbo and red beans and rice I had earlier, but with crayfish.
Tired from wandering around the French Quarter, we ducked into Spitfire Coffee, a tiny coffee shop that had a small counter, a friendly but slightly intimidating barista, and most importantly, air conditioning.
When I saw that they had café Cubano on the menu, I knew I had to try it.
I first heard about the café Cubano from Caitlin Kiernan’s Silk, and I’ve always wanted to try it. It’s a shot of espresso sweetened with demara sugar as it is brewed, the mixture vigorously mixed to create a creamy foam. The resulting drink is deep, slightly thicker than your regular espresso, though just as strong, and of course, sweeter because of the addition of sugar.
Many Vietnamese settlers arrived in New Orleans in the mid 70s after the Vietnam war. NOLA was ideal because its weather was comparable to that of Vietnam. The city’s Vietnamese population has been cited as one of the first to return after Hurricane Katrina. It’s been written that part of why they were so quick to bounce back was because they were used to hardship.
Some of New Orleans has rubbed off on the local Vietnamese cuisine. Here, bahn mi are called ‘Vietnamese po’boys,’ and one can often find crayfish as an ingredient in traditional Vietnamese dishes. On the flip side, Vietnamese cuisine has infiltrated NOLA dining as well, with some po’boy shops offering the pickled vegetables used in bahn mi as a choice of filling.
I had my favorite pho bo—Vietnamese beef noodle soup. This popular Vietnamese street food consists of broth, rice noodles, some herbs, and meat, usually chicken or beef. It was first. Documented in the late 1910s in North Vietnam, it spread to the south in the 1950s, and was popularized all over the world by Vietnamese refugees who brought the dish to their new homes.
I love how the broth is deep and richly flavored, served hot enough to cook the thin slices of beef served raw over rice noodles. I love that there’s an element of play to the dish, that you get to choose which herbs to put in, and whether or not you want sauce. It’s a dish that is delicious on its own, but also allows for the diner to highly personalize the dish according to their taste.
Another friend asked if I could eat a muffuletta. I had no idea what it was, but I said sure, and went on to find out.
The muffuletta refers to both a sandwich and the bread used to make it. The bread is a round, flat loaf that’s crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
The sandwich is traditionally made with a muffuletta loaf split horizontally and stuffed with marinated olive salad, salami, ham, Swiss cheese, provolone, and mortadella. It was invented in 1906 at Central Grocery Co. On Decatur Street by Salvatore Lupo.
I ordered my sandwich cold (it can be served hot or cold), and enjoyed it immensely. My favorite part was the olive salad, which provided a tart, extra cold contrast to the meat and cheese. I wanted to marry that olive salad. I have to figure out how to make it.
Fresh Oysters and Turtle Soup
Louisiana is known for its fresh oysters, which are large and sweet. They used to come from the waters off the gulf, though I’ve heard that this isn’t always the case anymore.
True to its reputation, the oysters I get were large and sweet, so large in fact that they, plus a bowl of turtle soup, tided me over till dinner.
Creole turtle soup, or caouane (loggerhead turtle in French), is a classic NOLA dish. Turtle is actually a popular ingredient in many parts of the USA, though it’s become illegal in some areas where the turtles have become endangered.
I tried a bowl because why not? The soup had the consistency of gumbo. It tasted like it was made with the same spices that comprise many NOLA dishes, with the difference being the protein in it and what it’s called on the menu.
Sweet Potato Pie
Sweet potato pie is a traditional American dessert that originated in the South. It’s an open shell pie made with sweet potatoes, prepared in the same way one would a pumpkin pie.
There’s a big cake vs. pie debate that I never understood before going to the USA because in the Philippines, you’re obviously going to pick cake. You get to the US, however, where people take their pie seriously, and that’s where the quandary starts. Because in my experience, both cakes and pies in the US is always delicious. A homemade cake my aunt’s neighbor brought over was better than most store-bought cakes in the Philippines.
The sweet potato pie I had in the NOLA airport–the airport!–was scrumptious down to the last crumb. In the Philippines, the crust is always an after thought, something one feels one has to leave behind because it isn’t worth the calories. In the US, the crust is an integral part of the pie’s charm. Even the pocket pies at McDonalds have crusts that can hold their own, even without the filling. It’s witchcraft, I tell you.
I don’t know what it is about the pastries in the US. Maybe it’s the quality of ingredients they have, or maybe it’s the way they skew their measurements to their particular taste. All I know is that I understand why American media portrays baked goods as something hard to turn down.