New Orleans food, commonly defined as Creole, is a spicy, substantial – and usually very fattening – blend of French, Spanish, African and Caribbean cuisine, mixed up with a host of other influences including Native American, Italian and German. Some of the simpler dishes, like red beans and rice, reveal a strong West Indies influence, while others are more French, cooked with long-simmered sauces based on a roux (fat and flour heated together) and herby stocks. Many dishes are served étouffée, literally “smothered” in a tasty Creole sauce (a roux with tomato, onion and spices), on rice. Although there are some exceptions, what passes for Cajun food in the city tends to be a modern hybrid, tasty but not authentic; the “blackened” dishes, for example, slathered in butter and spices, made famous by chef Paul Prudhomme.
The mainstays of most menus are gumbo – a thick soup of seafood, chicken and vegetables – and jambalaya, a paella jumbled together from the same ingredients. Other specialities include po-boys, French-bread sandwiches overstuffed with oysters, shrimp or almost anything else, and muffulettas, the round Italian version, crammed full of aromatic meats and cheese and dripping with garlicky olive dressing. Along with shrimp and soft-shell crabs, you’ll get famously good oysters; they’re in season from September to April. Crawfish, or mudbugs (which resemble langoustines and are best between March and June), are served in everything from omelettes to bisques, or simply boiled in a spicy stock. Everyone should enjoy a café au lait and beignet (featherlight doughnuts, without a hole, cloaked in powdered sugar) at Café du Monde in the French Quarter. And for another only-in-New-Orleans snack, look out for the absurd, giant, hot-dog-shaped Lucky Dogs carts set up throughout the Quarter. Featured in John Kennedy Toole’s farcical novel A Confederacy of Dunces, they’ve become a beloved institution, though in truth the dogs themselves are nothing great.