7 classic New Orleans dishes with fascinating histories

By Ana Kinkaid, editor of the culinary magazine CONNECT

Another fabulous ACF National Convention and Show is behind us, this time in la Belle New Orleans. By all accounts, this year’s events were both inspiring and informative, not to mention the bonus of enjoying New Orleans’ legendary cuisine. Just consider the historic cuisine that attending chefs had a chance to savor…

Red Beans and Rice
This simple but classic New Orleans dish came from the nearby Caribbean islands of Haiti and Cuba. Traditionally the dish was served on Monday or Wash Day, because that was the day when the laundry was done. In the days before washing machines, massive amounts of water had to be hand-heated over wood fires, the clothes scrubbed on washboards, rinsed and hung out to dry. This day-long task precluded any elaborate dinners being prepared, so slow cooking red beans over steamed long-grained rice was the perfect evening meal. New Orleans restaurants still offer this dish to diners on Monday.

Gumbo Z’herbes
Gumbo z’herbes is a unique green gumbo, seldom seen outside of New Orleans. It’s made with an assortment of fresh vegetables such as mustard greens, collards, watercress, and spinach. Over the years, chefs have enriched the gumbo with a small piece of sausage or veal. Originally created by slaves brought from West Africa, it’s a Creole dish traditionally served on Holy Thursday, just before the beginning of Lent by both the Spanish and French in New Orleans for over two hundred years. Today one of the best bowls of Gumbo z’herbes is served at Dooky Chase’s famed restaurant.

Shrimp Po’ Boy
In New Orleans culinary culture there is one sandwich favored above all others and that is the po’ boy. Like many of New Orleans’ famous dishes its heritage is tied to the city’s unique history. In 1929 the streetcar motormen and conductors of New Orleans went on strike for better wages. The owners of Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Market, who were former streetcar drivers themselves, sympathized with the workers. In an effort to support the weary strikers on the picket line, the Martin Brothers decided to feed them without charge until the strike was resolved. Oral tradition records that Bennie Martin, on seeing another tired man coming off the picket line for a sandwich, would remark, “Here comes another po’ boy.” The name stuck and the sandwich became legend.

Oyster Pan Bread Sandwich
Oysters have always been part of New Orleans cuisine since the days of its first native inhabitants. The city’s fascination with oysters is still apparent as they are a major ingredient on many restaurant menus. And why not — the nearby Gulf of Mexico produces 70% of our nation’s fresh oysters. Fried oysters are a particular favorite in the city, especially in a sandwich, but only if the bread is right. The best bread for an oyster sandwich is traditionally a thick slice of white pan bread so specialized it’s known by local chefs as an “oyster loaf”. The bread should be buttered and toasted, and when it’s topped with fresh fried oysters and a rich sauce, it’s sheer culinary heaven.

Shrimp Remoulade on a Fried Green Tomato
The city’s French heritage makes its cuisine rich in memorable sauces. Remoulade is one such sauce, but one with a definite Big Easy twist. While the classic French version is white, the New Orleans version is colored a pale red orange due to the addition of chili powder and mustard. One application that’s been a popular dish for over 25 years is a warm grilled green tomato topped with crisp cold shrimp and chilled remoulade sauce. Truly a memorable and tasty combination.

It’s impossible to experience New Orleans cuisine without savoring jambalaya. Just be sure to be aware there are two versions — one Creole and one Cajun. Both versions involve rice cooked in a rich tomato sauce with an assortment of meats added, but that’s where the differences begin. Chefs favoring rural Cajun cuisine generally prefer to add smoked andouille pork sausage and/or crawfish to their jambalaya. Urban focused Creole chefs traditionally add tasso ham and/or shrimp. Either way, the flavor is pure New Orleans!

Yaka Mein
When New Orleans’ soldiers returned home after the Korean War in 1953, they brought home with them an affection for a salty Korean beef noodle soup known today as Yaka Mein. A beloved meal after a long night out, the soup is also known by the nickname “Old Sober.” Today, New Orleans’ creative chefs have enhanced it with a variety to additional toppings including green onions and a sliced boiled egg. Plain or garnished, Yaka Mein is yet another addition to the wonder of New Orleans’ remarkable cuisine.