For a city where getting to bed by 3am is considered an “early night”, it’s surprisingly difficult to find time to do things. But that seems to be the way that New Orleans goes.
New Orleans is a land of indulgence. You eat a lot, drink a lot, stay up late and wake up later. You chat with strangers on the tram or in a bar, drink more, and end up with new friends and an unfortunate bank balance. And you love every second of it.
This is a city famous for its food, in particular for things fried and served in bread. Meals are big and heavy, but they are absolutely worth the pain. Washed down with a local beer or an overly sweet and surprisingly potent cocktail and you’re always going to be in for a good time.
Let’s start with what the locals are most proud of – the seafood. The seafood here is excellent, and plentiful, with oysters, shrimp, and the local specialty of crawfish available everywhere. And if you speak to anyone from Louisiana, it’s the best seafood in the world.
But while it is good, the people from Louisiana are a little enthusiastic in making that claim. For example, I ordered a dozen oysters at Casamento’s, an old-school tiled oyster house that feels somewhat like you’re eating in a bathroom. The price was unimpeachable, with $11 for a dozen being unheard of back home, and when the oysters came out they were impressive to see. Each one was huge, a good 5cm across.
Unfortunately, the flavour just didn’t live up. To me, the beauty of a fresh oyster is that real taste of the ocean. They should give a greater experience than seems possible for such a small creature, make you feel that you’re on a beach with the mist off the waves gently hitting your face. These didn’t. Now, I realise that they have been having difficulties since the oil spill regarding fresh water going into the bay, so maybe I should be more lenient, but it was just disappointing.
It made me understand why, in Australia, it’s really a crime to cook our oysters, to destroy that simple freshness, yet here everywhere sells deep-fried oysters. With these oysters, large and inoffensive, frying makes sense.
Frying is also the main way to eat the shrimp, it seems. These become tiny crunchy bites of sweetness and salt, simple and satisfying. But again, they’re good rather than exceptional.
What were exceptional, and justifiably deserving of it’s iconic reputation, were the crawfish. For those uninitiated, crawfish are like a prawn with a bigger head, or a salt-water yabby. They are small crays that live in the mud of the bay. Once caught, they are boiled in Cajun spices and served straight in piles of two or three pounds.
You break the head off, suck out the head juices, then pinch the meat out the tail. It’s all eaten with your hands, it’s messy as hell, and it is absolutely delicious. The flesh is sweet, while the head (by far the best part) is heavy on umami. Mix that with the heat from the spices and it just has that right combination. Sure, you need to eat a lot of them to have a meal, but I don’t think anyone would complain about that. I had mine at Franky and Johnny’s, a local joint that seemed friendly and relaxed, and as much as I enjoyed them, the people beside me told me you could get a lot better ones. That excites me.
Another justifiable icon of the industry is gumbo. This hearty roux-based stew of seafood and veggies steals from nearly every culture that has passed through the Crescent City, and it is a great stable to hold down a city. The two that I have had, at the burger-bar Yo Mama’s and the local legend of Coop’s Place, were both variations on the theme. Both seemed to use file rather than okra as the thickener, but they were different from each other in feel.
Yo Mama’s was thick, warming, gooey. A really rich stew that could gird you for anything that may happen. Coop’s, on the other hand, was much lighter, zestier, and cleaner. The wonderfully fresh vegetables still had a tiny crunch to them, the soup was thinner. Both were excellent, but it would be a matter of taste as to which to prefer.
What Coop’s Place really did well, though, was the rabbit and sausage jambalaya, a version of this classic rice dish that I will have to try to recreate when I get home.
There is so much more that I could talk about the food in this city. I will do another post on the two classic Louisiana sandwiches, the po’ boy and Muffalata, when I get time, but there is simply too much here.
New Orleans is a great food city, and it’s too big a plate to do justice to in one go. Just come here and indulge for yourself.