Chef’s Special: Jambalaya, Rich In Flavor And History

Photo: Southern Living 

Photo: Southern Living 

When you’re looking for a cheap, filling and tasty dish, whether it’s for a family dinner all your relatives are attending or a low-key gathering with friends, Jambalaya is the most convenient, good-looking dish among your options.

Originating in New Orleans, this dish carries an interesting and fascinating history. It’s a late night in Louisiana and a traveller arrives at a diner when dinner has already been served and the kitchen is closed. Nevertheless, the cook is told to throw something together (to “belayez” something) for the hungry roamer to satisfy his appetite. The ending result came to be forever known as Jambalaya.

The fact that this dish can be made with different types of food such as chicken, sausage or seafood, or a mixture of all of them, for that matter, reflects the history behind its creation: a time-crunched attempt to assemble leftovers in a quick dish for a late comer on a late night.

The flavor of the Jambalaya, however, didn’t suffer at all from the time-constraining circumstances in which it was born. On the contrary, they contributed to make it bold and spicy, perfect to fulfill an overlong craving for food.

While it is said that this dish takes its root from the early Spanish communities that resided in New Orleans (a scenario that is made believable by the very name of the dish), French and African contaminations, as well as many other, certainly contributed to forge its identity. The word “Jambon”, for instance, is French for ham, while “Aya” means rice in African. So, given the presence of copious amounts of slaves in Louisiana, it’s well conceivable that when that late night at the New Orleans Inn the cook Jean was asked to throw something together at the command of “jean, balayez!”, the phrase morphed into the word “Jambalaya”, becoming the official name of the dish.

It shares similar looks with the famous paella, which was repeatedly taken as evidence by those who argue that Spain is the deepest of its widely-spread roots; and there are theories that suggest that the name originates from the Native American saying “Sham, pal ha! Ya!” (which is equivalent to “Bon Appetit”). When Spanish explorers brought their heritage to the American continent, the cultures might have mixed up and produced the word Jambalaya.

While all of this will always be partially ensconced in mystery and uncertainty, what seems to be crystal clear is the nature and style of the dish: a filling yet cheap meal, easy to prepare and adaptable to virtually any occasion.

The dish reached its popularity peak in the 1930s when economic hardship rendered difficult to afford food, thus any kind of fancy cooking became hard to pursue due to the lack of resources. However, a simply-cooked dish with rice and vegetables satisfied the needs and the palates of American families, struggling to make ends meet.

What is for certain is that Jambalaya rhymes with social gatherings. To this day, it’s a Louisiana locals and visitors favorite for get-togethers and special occasions in which many people are scheduled to attend. Just like at Church fairs, for instance, which is where some claim the dish originally earned its popularity.

Louisiana families still have slightly different recipes for it, given the local, familiar and humble origins. However, there are two main versions of it: that made with Creole and that made with Cajun.

The Creole version, on the one hand, has tomatoes in it, which are added to onion, peppers and celery, which are cooked with meat. Tomatoes are added later with rice before the pot is left on the stove just below boiling point.

In the Cajun version, on the other hand, the meat is cooked separately until it caramelizes, only then vegetables and rice are added to the mix.

Whichever method you decide to adopt, here’s what you will need:

  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 Onion, finely chopped
  • 2 bell peppers, chopped
  • 1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breasts, diced
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 oz. andouille sausage
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2 c. low-sodium chicken stock
  • 1 14.5-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 c. long grain rice
  • 2 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
  • 1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced       

Here’s how you make it:

  • Heat olive oil in a spacious Dutch oven over medium heat. Add salt, pepper, onion and bell pepper.
  • Keep it cooking for about 5 minutes, before stirring in the chicken and season with salt, pepper and oregano.
  • Keep it cooking for 5 more minutes, until the chicken is golden. Add andouille sausage, garlic, tomato. Cook for one more minute until the paste is fragrant.
  • Add chicken broth, crushed tomatoes, rice, and Old Bay seasoning. Cover it with a tight lid and keep cooking until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed by it, which will take about 20 minutes.
  • Add the shrimps and keep cooking for 5 more minutes.
  • Add green onions, stir it up and serve it to your guests.

Whether you’re having a last-minute family reunion or you feel like experimenting and increasing your cooking skills to impress your friends, Jambalaya is your best choice.