There's a lot of history involved.

One Pan Jambalaya
Credit: Jennifer Causey

Chowing down on gumbo for Mardi Gras? We know and love Louisiana food to be zesty, flavorful, and hearty—but the words “Creole” and “Cajun” are often incorrectly used interchangeably to describe the cuisine of this region. While both styles of cooking do share certain traits, they both emerged from different cultures and traditions. Here’s the breakdown on some of the distinctive flavors of The Big Easy and the surrounding regions.

Admittedly, Creole and Cajun food have a lot in common, starting with an incredibly diverse range of culinary influences that originated in Louisiana. Ingredients and cooking techniques were drawn from French, Spanish, Native American, and African food traditions—even drawing influence from the West Indies, Ireland, Italy, and German cuisine. Another similarity: Both Creole and Cajun cooking commonly use a “holy trinity” base of onions, bell pepper, and celery in their dishes, similar to a French mirepoix, which consists of onion, carrot, and celery.

However, Creole cooking is often considered more “city” food than its Cajun counterpart. According to The New Food Lover’s Companion, it uses pricier ingredients like expensive seafood, tomatoes, cream, and butter, drawing more heavily from classical French cooking techniques. This style of cooking is often seen as more luxurious and refined, as it was developed in wealthier, aristocratic homes in the 18th and 19th century—a common saying is, “A Creole feeds one family with three chickens and a Cajun feeds three families with one chicken.”

You’ll notice that Creole food commonly starts with a light, butter-based roux, the sauces can often be red because of the addition of tomatoes, and dishes tend to be more time and labor intensive, requiring hours of simmering and preparation because they were historically made for families that could afford cooks and servants. So if your gumbo or jambalaya looks more red than brown, you’re probably eating one made in a more Creole style.

On the flip side, Cajun food is considered more “country” and makes greater use of oil and animal fats like lard. These cooking fats are cheaper and more readily available in Acadiana, which is the region of Louisiana where this style of cooking was developed. Due to limited access to expensive, imported ingredients, Cajun food often relied more heavily on what was already available in the region, which is largely made up of bayous, swampland, and prairies. This means game meat, shellfish (think crawfish), and native ingredients like filé powder are used more frequently in Cajun cuisine. The food is known to be much more frugal, making complete use of slaughtered animals, which is why Cajun roux often starts with a lard base. Cajun stews and sauces also typically a deeper brown in color, made with more economical cuts of meat, and use fewer fresh herbs, garlic, or produce like tomatoes.

The majority of Cajun and Creole food that you’ll find today is often a blend of both culture’s traditions. If you’re ready to try your hand at Creole and Cajun food, start by making a roux: a common base in both cuisines. Think you’re ready to go all out? Make a hearty gumbo or jambalaya, and enjoy that Louisiana flavor a little more, knowing you’re savoring centuries of tradition.