Often confused but subtly different, these culinary cousins both burst with flavor.

By Steve Millburg
April 30, 2008
Hot crawfish ready to be feasted upon
Photo: Greg Dupree; prop styling: Heather Chadduck Hillegas; food styling: Erin Merhar

Cajun cuisine―that's blackened fish, right? And Creole―isn't that the same as Cajun?

Well, no. And yes. As Creole and Cajun food has spread from south Louisiana, so has confusion about the two. Both have French roots and share signature dishes such as jambalaya and gumbo. "The distinctions used to be more clear-cut," says Stanley Dry, a chef and writer who lives in New Iberia, Louisiana. "Now, I think that there are still distinctions, but it's very, very blurred."

"Creole" traditionally referred to the city cooking of New Orleans, a sophisticated mélange of influences and ingredients from Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. The Cajuns lived in rural communities west and south of New Orleans and ate what they could grow or catch.

Related: How To Peel Crawfish

But cooks borrowed freely from each other over the years. Things became more muddled when Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme became famous in the 1980s. His "blackening" technique, searing fish with hot spices, came to be considered synonymous with "Cajun cooking"―to the annoyance of aficionados who insist that Cajun cuisine is much more varied and subtly flavored.

Still, you can't blame anyone for being puzzled. Things get pretty murky when you talk about jambalaya (the Creole version more often includes tomatoes) and gumbo (the Cajun version is likely to utilize more roux). Stanley says his version of étouffée, usually classified as Cajun, takes on Creole touches because of the added extravagance of lump crabmeat.

Pableaux Johnson, food editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, grew up in New Iberia and lived for years in New Orleans. He offers a compromise. "I think the distinction is less whether it's pure Cajun or pure Creole―as if there were such a thing," he says, "but more that it's all 'Louisiana food.'"