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A visit to New Orleans, Louisiana, is the perfect opportunity to sample some traditional local dishes. The region’s French, Spanish and African roots all contribute to the local delicacies. Later immigrants brought their own flavor touches as well. New Orleans’ location, near the Gulf of Mexico, and the swamps means that certain items, like seafood and alligator or turtle, have also made their way onto menus. While you’re partying in New Orleans you’ll need food to keep you going.
New Orleans is one of the most popular foodie destinations in the United States for good reason. Here are some traditional foods to try in New Orleans and the best restaurants to try them:
Foods to Try in New Orleans: Starters
Creole Turtle Soup
What is it: Another creature of the bayous joins the foods to try – the turtle. Unlike the clear turtle soup of other cultures, the creole version is almost thick and closer to a stew. Typically topped with a sherry sauce and a boiled egg, consider giving this soup a try.
What is it: A one-pot dish with a little bit of everything in it. Think chicken, Andouille sausage, shrimp, onions, garlic, peppers, and lots of spice, with the rice cooked in it. There are two versions of jambalaya – cajun and creole. The creole version, also known as “red jambalaya,” contains tomatoes, while the cajun version does not. Often served as a side dish or appetizer, jambalaya makes a hearty meal on its own.
Foods to try in New Orleans: Side/Main Dishes
What is it: Italian immigrants to the area created the muffuletta – a sandwich on a loaf of round sesame bread. In it, you’ll find a mix of salami, cheese, and olive salad. There are debates as to whether it should be served cold or hot. A typical muffuletta sandwich generously serves a very hearty appetite, or share it with a friend!
What is it: A sandwich served on a French-like bread that is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Frequently stuffed with a protein of some kind, such as fried oysters or shrimp, topped with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. A great way to try some of the area’s fresh seafood.
What is it: Spring-time’s seafood king in New Orleans is the crawfish. Think of it as a miniature lobster. Often boiled or baked, they’re best eaten with your hands. Feel free to ask a local or your waiter how to eat these little suckers. There are even videos if you’re too shy to ask!
What is it: Served over rice, the étoufé is a mixture of roux (a base of flour and fat), seasonings and shellfish, typically crawfish, but sometimes shrimp. While often served as a side dish, etouffee is thicker than gumbo but less substantial than jambalaya.
What is it: This classic stew features meat (chicken or sausage) or shellfish, onions, celery, bell peppers, tomatoes and okra in a roux. Cajun gumbo is spicier, while creole gumbo is thicker. Compared to jambalaya and etouffee, gumbo is more akin to soup than the others.
Red Beans and Rice
What is it: Beans and rice are typical of a lot of cultures’ cuisines – but the New Orleans version is a bit different. Made with red kidney beans and long-grain rice, think of it as a creamy red beans sauce over rice. Traditionally eaten as a Monday meal (since laundry took the cooks’ attention away from cooking something that needed care), red beans and rice is usually served as a side dish, though it can also be used as a principal dish.
What is it: A mixture of pork, rice, onions, seasonings, contained in a casing. Sometimes served dressed up as fried balls (in which case there is no casing) – think arancini. Restaurants serve them to visitors as an appetizer.
What is it: The plentiful marshes or bayous around the city provide all the alligator foodies could want. Just as it sounds, alligator meat is an option on many menus. Usually featured in some fried form, such as bites. Typically consisting of tail meat or tenderloins, and generally served as an appetizer, it is worth giving it a try when in New Orleans. Jacques-Imo’s appetizers feature a shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake that is delicious.
What is it: Gulf oysters feature prominently in many restaurants in New Orleans. Eat them raw or cooked. You’ll find specials throughout the city for oyster bars featuring oysters on the half-shell. For those squeamish about raw oysters, try them grilled, Rockefeller (topped with a spinach mix), or Bienville (topped with a diced shrimp and mushroom mixture, or any other creative versions on the menu.
What is it: With its perfect just north of the Gulf location, seafood takes center stage in many New Orleans restaurants. In addition to the individual items already included on this list, you’ll find delicious shrimp, seasonal catches, and crab.
Foods to try in New Orleans: Sweets
Those who have a sweet tooth like me can find some unique New Orleans twists on desserts. Here are all the sweet foods to try in New Orleans:
What is it: Frequently prepared table-side, this dessert features bananas cooked in a butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon sauce. The dish is then flambeed with banana liqueur. Served over vanilla ice cream, bananas foster blend the hot and cold perfectly.
What is it: If coffee cake and cinnamon rolls had a baby, it would be a King Cake. Covered in colored icing, frequently the Mardi Gras colors of yellow, green and purple, this tasty treat is typical of the area. But be careful biting into it since it often has a trinket or plastic baby to be found. This cake pays homage to the story of the three kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus.
What is it: Similar to fudge, this tasty sweet treat is made of sugar, milk, butter, and pecans. Some believe it to be one of the earliest forms of street foods in the United States. Makes for a great souvenir to bring back from your trip to New Orleans.
What is it: Fried dough served hot and covered with a healthy layer of powdered sugar. These are not round doughnuts but rather square or triangular. Typically served in threes, I leave it to you to choose whether to share them or not.
What is it: Coffee lovers be warned – New Orleans restaurants usually mix chicory (from the dandelion family) root coffee into the coffee we’re used to. This bold brew is best enjoyed in a cafe au lait (with milk). It is sweet and nutty. Some describe the taste as tobacco-y or woodsy. I don’t find it off-putting but it is not my favorite.
Where to find it: Perhaps the best-known location to have chicory coffee in town is the world-famous Cafe du Monde, open 24 hours. Other locations worth trying are the French Truck Cafe, Cafe Fleur de Lis.
Have you found a favorite? Have you tried any of these? What else should we try? We hope this list of amazing foods to try in New Orleans has encouraged you to visit — plus to give them all a try! And don’t forget to take some great souvenirs home with you!
Annick, The Common Traveler