New Orleans native, chef, culinary instructor, radio host, and cookbook author Poppy Tooker believes there are a few universal truths when it comes to making a pot of jambalaya—whether it’s made in the Creole or Cajan tradition. Find out what those truths are and learn how to make Poppy’s Creole-Style Shrimp Jambalaya.
Text and recipe by Poppy Tooker
Ever since Hank Williams first sang “Jambalaya, a crawfish pie, and a filé gumbo” in his 1952 hit song “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” the world outside Louisiana has been confused about the difference between two of those delicious dishes, jambalaya and gumbo. It’s simple: Gumbo is a stewy soup that’s served with cooked rice. Jambalaya is a rice dish, rather like a hearty meat-and-vegetable-studded pilaf. It’s beloved across the South but nowhere more than in southern Louisiana, where I was born, raised, and still live.
Despite our love for the stuff, jambalaya (pronounced juhm-buh-li-yah) is also a source of contention and much debate among Louisianans. While there are countless recipes for the dish, depending on where you live in the state and how your ancestors prepared it, there are two main styles: Creole (or red), which gets its color from the addition of tomatoes, and Cajun (or brown), which is tomato free and usually a deeper color, thanks to more aggressive browning of the aromatic vegetables and meats. Which style is best is a topic so heatedly discussed that it’s been known to cause friends and even relatives to part ways.
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All debate aside, I believe in a few universal truths when it comes to making a pot of jambalaya. There should always be some sort of ham and, of course, rice. The “holy trinity” of seasoning vegetables—onion, green bell pepper, and celery —is mandatory in both Cajun and Creole cooking. After that, whether it should include chicken, smoked and fresh sausages, shrimp, oysters, or crab, or any combination thereof, is your prerogative.
I also believe that the best jambalaya starts with a homemade stock, which is why I include that step in my recipes. It’s an easy thing to make using the ingredients that will go into the jambalaya, and the dish is so much better for it.
Above all else, jambalaya should be deeply flavorful, wonderfully comforting, and plentiful enough to feed a crowd without breaking the bank. Get that right and you’ve made jambalaya just as it should be.
The Jambalaya Pantry – These iconic ingredients bring big flavor to the jambalaya pot:
1. Rice is the heart of the dish. Long-grain white is traditional.
2. Onion, celery, and green bell pepper form the “holy trinity” of aromatic vegetables in Creole and Cajun cooking.
3. Ham, be it regular or tasso (see #6 ), always appears in jambalaya. For regular ham, either deli ham or a ham steak will work.
4. Tomato paste is for Creole jambalaya only, where it adds color and depth.
5. Creole seasoning, a flavorful mixture of salt, chili powder, red and black pepper, and garlic, is used in both Creole and Cajun cooking.
6. Tasso is spicy, peppery smoked pork shoulder. It’s also known as “Cajun ham.”
7. Chaurice is a spicy fresh pork sausage similar to fresh chorizo.
8. Andouille is a coarse, garlicky smoked pork sausage.