If I had to describe the food of Southwest Louisiana in one word, it would be this: Fried.
Okay, two words: Fried and spicy.
But it’s also delicious, if you eat it in moderation.
Though I’m not a foodie by definition, I know when a destination’s culture is tied to its cuisine, and in Southwest Louisiana, that is most definitely the case. From crawfish and gumbo to jambalaya and boudin, there’s definitely a flavor in this corner of the United States that is distinctly unique.
Whereas I like my breakfast a little bit sweet, perhaps with some syrup-soaked French toast or pancakes, the folks in Louisiana like their meat. Boudin is a particular favorite and is practically its own food group. Boudin is a variety of pork, liver, rice, onions and seasonings encased in pork intestine. It’s basically like sausage, and it’s sold by the pound at the dozens of shops along the famous Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail. The folks living here don’t hesitate to eat it for every meal of the day (plus for snack time), so there’s never a shortage.
I can pass on the boudin, but put a pistolette within biting distance and I’m all over it! These stuffed, fried breadrolls come stuffed with a variety of fillings including shrimp and alligator. They’re served warm and they remind me a bit of pot pies.
Served smoked, as jerky or just as another kind of meat, alligator steps in and takes its place among chicken, beef and seafood in Southwest Louisiana. I tried it, and it was … unmemorable. Though it just “was” for me, it’s also quite popular and a bit of a specialty in these parts.
Okay, this is cheating just a touch, mainly because it’s specific to Mardi Gras, but how can I pass up mentioning king cake? These sweet ring cakes traditionally come in cinnamon flavor, but today you can get them in just about every sweet variety imaginable—Bavarian cream, chocolate, vanilla, fruity. Some bakeries even create a “garbage” flavor, in which they throw all the scraps from all the other king cakes they’ve made into a single cake. Quantities are limited on these mish-mashed cakes, and those who’d like them have to put their orders in early.
The king cake is a Mardi Gras tradition in which a small, plastic baby is hidden in a large cake. The person who finds the baby is supposed to have good luck for the next year, and she also has to provide the next king cake. During Mardi Gras, businesses, families and schools go through dozens of king cakes, so the bakeries definitely stay busy.
Seafood in general and crawfish in particular are incredibly popular in Southwest Louisiana, which makes sense given its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, where the daily catch is brought in fresh. Shrimp is a staple in Southwest Louisiana, and visitors can find it boiled, raw, fried or grilled at most restaurants. Though different kinds of seafood are available during different parts of the year, it is crawfish that seems to be a local favorite. While travelers peruse through the menu, locals go right for the crawfish, which is generally served by the pound. It is boiled, spiced as desired and peeled, and is often a central part of celebratory meals or special occasions during crawfish season (February through June, with the peak in March and April).
No two gumbo dishes are exactly alike, and that’s the beauty of gumbo. It is a stew of sorts that consists of a mix of meats, vegetables and thickeners. The base is usually a strongly flavored meat, seafood or stock, and then a variety of vegetables such as peppers, onions and celery are tossed in. Other spices, such as are added for flavor.
Etouffée is a dish that consists of some sort of shellfish that is served atop rice. The shellfish (usually crawfish, shrimp or crabmeat) is created into a stew of sorts (thicker than gumbo), and then spread across a plate of dirty rice, which means its been cooked in seafood stock. It usually has a handful of spices tossed in and can have quite a kick to it.
Again, a mix of meat, vegetables and stock make up another staple Southwest Louisiana dish: Jambalaya. Originally from the Caribbean islands, jambalaya starts with meat and vegetables and is completed by adding a flavorful stock and rice. There are two common ways to create jambalaya, both of which can take several hours to make, so while people have their own twist on the classic recipes, it’s fairly standard. Jambalaya is different from gumbo and etouffée in the way in which rice is included in the dish.
Southwest Louisiana is meat-eating country, and though vegetarians can get by, it’s not easy. Meat is a staple in most meals. In addition to alligator, wild game includes goose and duck, but other common meats include turkey, chicken, beef and pork. Expect meals in general to be hearty, and for meat to play a central role.