Jambalaya’s Paternity

“Jambalaya, I am your father.” – Paella

If you, like me, happened to grow up in south Louisiana, you were taught virtually on your Mama’s knee that jambalaya is the New World’s much-improved version of the paella invented in or around Valencia, Spain. And considering that Louisiana had a “Spanish period” between two stints as a French colony, we all took Mama’s history as gospel truth. Still, whether we grew up in Creole New Orleans, where jambalaya is reddish from tomatoes, or in Cajun southwest Louisiana, where it’s deep brown, life gave us little reason to double-check Mama – or even to know a different recipe from her own exists.

Having sampled traditional paella in Valencia as well as in other parts of Spain, I always try in my kitchen to know both versions of jambalaya exist AND to incorporate both into my paella. The bigger, bolder – yes, less subtle – flavors of Creole or Cajun strike me as the perfect addition to a rice dish otherwise given over to saffron. Saffron is or should be a subtle flavor, and no doubt is made all the more so by the fact that it’s very expensive. It is, by most of us anyway, used with fiscal restraint.

Centuries before paella made it to the New World via Spanish-French Louisiana – sometimes complete with tomatoes, which the Spaniards brought home from the Americas, only to expand and popularize them here – there was that time-traveling partnership between the ancient Romans of Iberia and the Moorish Arabs who gave the world flamenco, Moorish architecture in colonial Latin America and a whole lot else now known as “Spanish.” It was these Arabs who, during the extended occupation that produced Granada, Sevilla and Cordoba, did us all a big favor by cultivating rice.

It was only a matter of time before the flat, round cooking pan devised by the Romans and called a “paella” started being used to cook Arab rice – the name of the pan eventually becoming the name of the food. Around Valencia there was a lagoon from which seafood was taken, and the takers took to cooking their bounty with rice, vegetables, saffron and other seasonings – spices being the heart and soul of Arab cooking. This basic recipe spread across Spain, far from most sources of seafood, and the notion of “mixed paella” was born. This combined whatever seafood could be found with chicken, rabbit and some seasoned sausage like chorizo.

The stage was set for jambalaya in the New World, in Louisiana specifically, with one culture along the bays and bayous subsisting on seafood and another one inland living off animals that walked, shuffled, crawled or flew. Suddenly, we might say, andouille was the new chorizo. As with paella in Spain, jambalaya emerged as a versatile and satisfying delivery system for, well, whatever you had.

So the next time you make Spanish paella, remember the Creoles and Cajuns of Louisiana who add so much flavor to anything they touch. And the next time you make jambalaya, think back to Romans who gave you the right cookware and Arabs who gave you the right ingredients.

Story by John DeMers

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