A platter of Cajun food including fish and red beans and rice

New Orleans, renowned for its vibrant culture and rich history, is equally famous for its unique and flavourful food. The city's cuisine melds together French, African, Spanish, and American influences into a delicious range of dishes that are as diverse as the city itself.

The food is good, often rich and portions are never small, so prepare to take your time tasting what New Orleans has to offer.

But before we delve into the specific dishes, it's worth taking a moment to talk about Creole and Cajun cuisine - and the differences between them.

Muffeletta and jambalaya on a white plate with a bourbon milk punch at the historic Napoleon House in the French Quarter

Creole vs Cajun food in New Orleans

Creole cuisine traditionally represented the cooking of the city's wealthier classes and incorporated various international influences, including African, Spanish, French, and Italian. Tomatoes, cream, and butter are often used in Creole cooking, along with local seafood.

The dishes are usually more complex and use a wider array of spices and herbs, partly due to the greater availability of imported ingredients New Orleans.

Cajun cuisine, on the other hand, originated from the French-speaking Acadian immigrants who settled in the rural areas of Louisiana. It's known for its hearty, one-pot meals like gumbo and jambalaya, and a more robust and rustic approach to seasoning.

The focus is on locally available ingredients, and cooking methods are more straightforward. The "Holy Trinity" (onion, celery, and bell pepper) is often used along with smoked meats and seafood.

People sitting outside Atchafalaya Restaurant in New Orleans

In New Orleans, chefs and home cooks have blended these two traditions to create a hybrid style that takes advantage of the city’s access to a wide array of fresh local ingredients and a shared heritage of French cooking techniques.

This results in dishes that might use a Cajun approach to seasoning but a Creole method of preparation, or vice versa. Of course, you can also find traditional Cajun and Creole foods in the city too.

In many ways, trying traditional food in New Orleans allows visitors to understand and enjoy what makes the city truly unique.

While the city has many wonderful dishes, here are just a few of the quintessential foods to try when you visit. Each of these dishes manages to embody just a bit of the history, culture, and soul of New Orleans.

A bowl of Cajun-style jambalaya

1. Jambalaya

A blend of meat and vegetables mixed with rice, jambalaya evolved from Spanish paella, adapted by Creoles to include local ingredients and French culinary techniques. Ingredients typically include sausage, chicken, and sometimes seafood, mixed with a medley of spices that create its unique flavour.

In many ways, this one-pot dish symbolises the blend of diverse cultures in New Orleans – and there are a couple of different versions. The Creole (red) jambalaya includes tomatoes, while the Cajun (brown) version does not. 

Where to try

  • Coop's Place in the French Quarter is famous for its authentic and spicy jambalaya.

  • The Gumbo Shop is another favourite, tucked away from the main streets, with great Creole and Cajun jambalaya.

Shrimp gumbo with crackers in a restaurant in New Orleans

2. Gumbo

A true staple of Louisiana cooking, gumbo is a rich, flavourful stew incorporating West African, French, Spanish, and Native American influences. It likely originated in the 18th century when slaves in Louisiana combined local ingredients with African cooking techniques.

Gumbo often features a mixture of chicken, sausage, and seafood, thickened with a roux and simmered with the "Holy Trinity" of onions, celery, and bell peppers. A versatile dish that varies from kitchen to kitchen, gumbo is the essence of New Orleans in a bowl.

Where to try

  • Dooky Chase's Restaurant is legendary for its Creole gumbo

  • Galatoire's offers a great classic version.

  • For a less touristy experience, you might want to try Li'l Dizzy's Café in the historic Treme neighbourhood.

An oyster po boy in New Orleans.

3. Po'boys

A classic New Orleans sandwich, po'boys are typically made with meat or fried seafood such as shrimp, oysters, or catfish. The po'boy was originally created during a 1929 streetcar strike when local restaurant owners, the Martin brothers, served free sandwiches to the "poor boys" on strike. 

It's not just about the fillings (seafood or roast beef) but also the French bread - crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside - and flavourful dressings. At its heart, the po'boy encapsulates the city’s knack for turning simple ingredients into something extraordinary. 

Where to try:

  • Parkway Bakery & Tavern is renowned for its shrimp po'boy

  • Domilise's Po-Boy & Bar is another must-visit spot.

  • Guy's Po'boys offers a variety of po'boys and is a favourite with residents.

A dish of beignets at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.

4. Beignets

Brought to Louisiana by the French Acadians, these square-shaped, deep-fried pastries are a New Orleans breakfast staple.

Unlike other doughnuts, beignets are square and served covered in powdered sugar. They are light, sweet and all too easy to eat. Beignets reflect New Orleans' French roots and a perfect treat alongside a café au lait.

Where to try

  • Café du Monde in the French Quarter is the most iconic spot to try beignets, often paired with their chicory-flavoured café au lait.

  • Morning Call Coffee Stand in City Park is another historic spot popular with locals without the long lines.

A plate of crawfish etouffee served over rice.

5. Crawfish étouffée

My personal favourite, this dish involves crawfish smothered in a thick, spicy sauce made from a roux and served over rice.

Crawfish étouffée is a relatively recent addition to Louisiana cuisine, gaining popularity in the 20th century, and is a staple during crawfish season, from late winter through early summer. It offers a true taste of Louisiana’s seafood cooking, rich and full of flavour.

Where to try it:

  • Brennan's Restaurant is known for its upscale take on the dish.

  • Superior Seafood & Oyster Bar is another place popular for its étouffée and other seafood dishes.

A close up of a mufaletta sandwich

6. Muffuletta

Originating from New Orleans' Italian community, this huge sandwich is stuffed with marinated olive salad, layers of capicola, salami, mortadella, emmentaler, and provolone.

First created in 1906 at Central Grocery in New Orleans by Sicilian immigrants, the muffuletta is known for its round Sicilian sesame bread and olive salad. While it seems a bit excessive, the sandwich gives you a taste of New Orleans’ Italian community and its influence on the city’s cuisine – and it’s really delicious!

Where to try it:

  • Central Grocery & Deli on Decatur Street is the birthplace of the muffuletta and remains one of the best places to sample this sandwich.

  • Napoleon House is a historic bar and cafe in the French Quarter that offers a great muffuletta.

A bowl of New Orleans-style red beans and rice

7. Red beans and rice

This simple dish, often cooked with Andouille sausage and spices, is a comforting and classic New Orleans meal. Traditionally made on Mondays with leftover pork bones from Sunday dinner, this dish has become a weekly ritual in many New Orleans homes.

It’s the ultimate comfort food and the closest you’re likely to get to home cooking in a restaurant.

Where to try it:

  • Willie Mae's Scotch House is famous for its red beans and rice.

  • The Joint is known for its BBQ but offers a delicious red beans and rice dish on Mondays, following tradition.

Banana foster, dessert originating in New Orleans

8. Bananas Foster

Invented at Brennan's in the 1950s, Bananas Foster was created to promote the then-newly imported bananas from South America.

The sumptuous dessert is made by flambéing bananas with butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, and rum, and is often served over vanilla ice cream. Like the city itself, Bananas Foster is indulgent, vibrant, and a little bit showy.

Where to try it:

  • Brennan's Restaurant, where the dish was invented, is the quintessential place to experience authentic Bananas Foster.

  • Ralph's on the Park serves a delectable version of this dessert and overlooks City Park.

A bowl of New Orleans-style shrimp and grits

9. Shrimp and grits

A Southern classic that has become a New Orleans favourite, this dish combines creamy, buttery grits with spicy, sautéed shrimp.

While grits are a Southern staple, New Orleans chefs have put their unique spin on this dish by adding local seafood and Creole flavours.

Where to try:

  • Atchafalaya has a unique and tasty version of this dish

  • Commander's Palace is a New Orleans institution so be sure to book in advance

  • Elizabeth's in the Bywater district provides a funky and authentic take on shrimp and grits, known for their praline bacon.

A dish of Oysters Rockefeller garnished with lemon

10. Oysters Rockefeller

Created at Antoine's in 1899, oysters are topped with a rich sauce of butter, herbs, and breadcrumbs, then baked. This dish was named for its richness, akin to that of John D. Rockefeller.

It’s a luxurious dish that reflects the city’s love for opulent, flavourful seafood dishes and its long culinary history.

Where to try:

  • Antoine's, the originator of the dish, is the definitive place to try Oysters Rockefeller in its classic form.

  • Casamento's, a local oyster joint that's been around since 1919, is famous for its raw and cooked oyster dishes.

People sitting outside the famous Cafe du Monde in New Orleans at night.

Foodie neighbourhoods in New Orleans

New Orleans’ neighbourhoods also have their own distinct culinary identities, often reflecting the historical and cultural influences that have shaped them. From the historic streets of the French Quarter to the oak-shaded avenues of the Garden District, you can experience different flavours and dining experiences.

French Quarter

Known as the heart of New Orleans, the French Quarter is famous for classic Creole cuisine, with iconic dishes served at historic restaurants like Antoine’s and Galatoire’s. This area is also where you’ll find the legendary Café du Monde, serving beignets and café au lait.

Treme

One of the oldest African-American areas in the country, Treme is renowned for soul food and Creole cooking. It’s the place for authentic gumbo, jambalaya, and po'boys, as well as for experiencing live jazz music, which often accompanies dining.

The Rum House restaurant in Magazine St in the Gardens district of New Orleans.

Uptown and Garden District

With a mix of high-end dining and more casual spots, this part of the city is perfect for those wanting to try ALL the foods. You can find everything from sophisticated Creole fine dining to casual sandwich shops serving po'boys and muffulettas.

Marigny and Bywater

These adjacent areas near the French Quarter have become a hotspot for eclectic and trendy dining experiences. Here, you can find a mix of cafes, bars and restaurants in artsy and hip settings.

CBD and Warehouse District

These areas have seen a surge in modern, upscale restaurants, home to some of the city's most innovative chefs. This is where you can find a fusion of traditional Southern and Creole cooking with contemporary techniques and presentation.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 5 December 2023

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