By Rachel Cox

If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you’ve probably heard of jambalaya. In fact, it’s probably on your must-eat list if you make your way down to Louisiana. But if you go traveling without a must-eat list, then stop what you’re doing, take out your phone, start one, and type jambalaya under New Orleans right now.

But maybe you’ve had jambalaya. It has been a signature dish of the area for centuries. Did you know, though, that despite its popularity, each pot of this delicious fare is unique?

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Mmmmmm…I can almost taste it!

So, whether you’re a jambalaya fanatic, or you’re still trying to figure out how to spell it for your must-eat list, there is a lot that people don’t know about this New Orleans staple.

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No one has any idea how old it is
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Never forget the trinity when making this dish
Gonzales, Louisiana was named Jambalaya Capital of the World

What Is Jambalaya?

Jambalaya is known as a comfort food filled to the brim with flavor.

Quite simply, it is an American Creole and Cajun rice dish of French, African, and Spanish influence, made with meat and vegetables. More specifically, a sofrito-like mixture of vegetables known as the trinity.

The trinity of vegetables in Cajun cuisine are onions, celery, and bell peppers. And in Spanish, ‘sofrito’ means to lightly fry something. And the most common meats used are andouille sausage, chicken, crawfish, and shrimp.

But now that we know what jambalaya is, where did it come from? Who created it? When was it created?

Well, the answer to all those questions is… no one really knows.

But it’s not like there aren’t leads or theories.

First thing’s first: the name. How did it get to be called ‘jambalaya?’ The theories on that vary, too. Again, nothing is for certain about this historic meal.

One popular thought is that it was named after a word found in a dictionary from 1878 from the Provence region of southern France originally spelled ‘jambalaia,’ meaning a mishmash or rabble.

This would be fitting as the dish is a mishmash of ingredients depending on who’s making it for you.

There’s another theory that it’s a combination of words from different languages. The French word jambon meaning ham and the African word aya meaning rice could have been mixed together since there were many slaves in French-heavy Louisiana at the time people think this dish was created.

A more interesting tale states that a traveler was staying at an old guest house in Louisiana, and one night asked its cook, Jean, to sweep something together in French.

Well, that resulting phrase came out Jean, balayez! With a little finagling, it became ‘jambalaya.’

Walter Gresham, sitting in his library in Gresham’s Palace

The Native American Atakapa tribe claim it originates from the phrase Sham, pal ha! Ya! This means Be full, not skinny! Eat up!

Basically, it’s their version of Bon appétit, and it came to be pronounced ‘jambalaya’ due to the Spanish influence in the area.

Now, the origin of the actual food is not as fun as the name’s potential origins, but there are still a couple worth mentioning.

The most probable idea is that it was the result of a variety of ethnicities mixing in the port of New Orleans and was a result of the need for filling but inexpensive meals with readily available ingredients.

That’s why it’s also thought to have been a variation of the Spanish dish paella. It’s essentially the same, but saffron is an important element, and since it costs so much to import it, they needed a substitute.

Tomatoes were used instead of saffron, thus creating a new version named jambalaya by the French in Louisiana.

A cookbook from 1878 by the ladies of St. Francis Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Mobile, Alabama printed a recipe for JAM BOLAYA.

We don’t have a copy of this recipe, and it’s also believed to have been around much longer than that, but it wasn’t customary to date recipes before this era. So, it’s unknown where they got the idea and name from.

The meal gained popularity in the 1930s with the economic downturn. You know, that whole Great Depression thing.

People needed to be able to get full off of very little, and with so many vegetables and grains in jambalaya, it was the perfect cost-effective meal. This could also be a reason for so many original recipes as families had to work with what they could get their hands on.

Now, the different preparations are passed down from generation to generation. They’re also common at church gatherings, weddings, political rallies, and many other get-togethers.

Variations and Similar Dishes

It is common knowledge in New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole that no two pots of jambalaya are the same. But it can usually be categorized into two types of jambalaya: Creole and Cajun.

Creole cooks make what is called ‘red jambalaya’ and use tomatoes, whereas Cajun cooks do not.

The Creole way of preparing the dish is typically found within the city limits of New Orleans, but the Cajun way grew legs and became more popular in southwestern and south-central Louisiana.

The rule of thumb states that the farther away from New Orleans one gets, the less common tomatoes are in recipes.

Now, the oldest actual recipe I could find came from an article written in 1844 about a group of guys who went on a hunting trip. Here is what the writer claims was in the ‘jombalyeeyah:’

A half-gallon of washed rice was put into the largest camp kettle, and with sufficient water set to boiling, after a while, slices of fat pickled pork were put in, at intervals, half fried pieces of bear meat, venison, and ham were dropped in and well stirred; then a loggerhead turtle, and by and by three owls, two wild ducks, a half dozen squirrels and five or six small catfish with broken biscuit were put in, with an abundance of garlic onions, red and black pepper, salt and leaves of sweet bay for a high seasoning. A piece of alligator tail had been subscribed by one of the party, but was indignantly rejected.

So…that’s a pretty all-inclusive recipe to say the least. All-inclusive, that is, except for alligator meat.

Fun fact: gators and crocs are about as close as we get to modern-day dinosaurs. Chickens, on the other hand, are actual dinosaurs. That means gator meat tastes a lot like chicken and has a similar texture, although wild-caught alligator can taste somewhat fishy.

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Hey cousin, why don’t we go bowling?

The writer also said that it was cooked at night and then served at sunrise. It was a major success, with compliments all around.

Jambalaya, being a pretty simple dish of rice, meat, and vegetables, can also be compared to a lot of other foods.

Gumbo is another dish similar to jambalaya. It uses some of the same foods and seasonings, but it includes filé powder or okra and is served over white rice instead of combined with it.

It’s prepared separately and then thrown on top of the rice and is more of a stew of sorts.

Another dish that closely resembles jambalaya is étouffée. This is a stew that always includes shellfish but doesn’t have any sausage. Its rice is also prepared separately from the main ingredients.

The Jambalaya Festival

In 1967, Steve Juneau, resident of Gonzales, Louisiana, felt that his town needed some promotion. Impressed with the jambalaya prepared by area cooks, he thought that could be harnessed to promote the town.

Thus, the Jambalaya Festival was created.

Juneau used the Festival to raise money for community projects and got funding from non-profit groups and fraternal organizations in order to have it ready by the following year.

Knowing this was going to be a much bigger job than people anticipated, Juneau organized the Jambalaya Festival Association, of which he was elected their first President.

By mid-June of 1968, the first Jambalaya Festival was open in what Louisiana Governor John J. McKeithen dubbed the Jambalaya Capital of the World. It was a major success. Within two years, almost 50,000 people were attending.

There have been lots of fun activities and entertainment over the years, such as car shows, a pageant, craft shows, 5k races, boxing contests, bands, golf tournaments, and the ever famous jambalaya cooking competition.

The very first year they held the competition was the first year the Jambalaya Festival opened, and 13 cooks entered to become the World Jambalaya Cooking Champion.

In 1972, they expanded the cooking competition and added the first Mini Pot jambalaya contest. This is where chefs must cook their dish in the World’s Smallest Jambalaya Pot. This tradition continues today.

So, if you find yourself in the New Orleans area in the spring and have the time to drive an hour to Gonzales, you should. What better way to embrace the meal of the area than to attend a festival dedicated to it?

But if you can’t make it to the Festival, there are a million and one spots in Louisiana with their own recipe for jambalaya, and any of them will be perfect for your must-eat list!

Creole Jambalaya Recipe

Jambalaya Ingredients:
2 Tablespoons butter
1 Pound chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
½ Pound andouille sausage, sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 Cup long grain white rice
1 14.5 Ounce Can diced tomatoes
2 Tablespoons Creole seasoning, recipe below
1-2 Teaspoons hot sauce
1 Teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 Cups chicken broth
2 bay leaves
¾ Teaspoon salt
½ Pound medium raw shrimp, deveined
4 green onions, thinly sliced

Creole Seasoning Ingredients:
4 Teaspoons garlic powder
4 Teaspoons onion powder
2 Tablespoons sweet paprika powder
1 Teaspoon smoked paprika
1 Tablespoon dried thyme
2 Teaspoons dried oregano
2 Teaspoons dried basil
1 Teaspoon dried rosemary
1 bay leaf
2 Teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 ½ Teaspoons salt
1 Teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Creole Seasoning Preparation:
Place all spices into a coffee grinder or blender
Pulse until you get a fine powder
Store in airtight container for up to 2 months

Jambalaya Preparation:
Place chicken in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of the Creole seasoning, set aside
Heat butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat and brown chicken on all sides
Add andouille sausage and cook for another 3 minutes or until sausage begins to brown
Add onion, garlic, celery, and bell pepper and cook for 3-4 minutes
Add rice, diced tomatoes, remaining tablespoon of Creole seasoning, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper and stir to combine
Add chicken broth and bay leaves
Bring to boil
Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, giving it one stir around the halfway point
Add shrimp, cover, and simmer for another 10 minutes or until rice is tender
Serve sprinkled with some sliced green onions