What the hell is jambalaya? This was a question posed years ago to the sixth grade version of myself by a distant pen pal, named Carlos. Since this pen pal was foisted upon me by my Kum Ba Yah singing Catholic school teacher in an idealistic attempt to expose me to the outside world, I didn’t feel a particular need to respond right away. I was much too busy playing Super Mario to write back to some stranger. Well, I might be a lot of things, but let it be known far and wide that I’m not a flake, just an overachieving procrastinator. So Carlos, if you’re out there, here’s your answer, some twenty odd years late.
Jambalaya is the ultimate in single pot Cajun cooking. A combination of rice, vegetables, stock and a mixture of meats all cooked together in a single pot (usually black iron), jambalaya is a deceptively simple meal that takes only minutes to learn, but years to master. Done right, it will bring tears to a Cajun man’s eyes, but done wrong, jambalaya a greasy mushy mess. Unlike gumbo, jambalaya is a great year round dish, whether served fireside at the camp, or at home by your mama.
The jambalaya was an attempt by New Orleanians of Spanish descent to make paella in the New World. Without ready access to saffron, tomatoes were substituted, and the resulting dish bore a red hue instead of the trademark yellow of paella. This new dish was dubbed jambalaya, from the Provencal word “jambalaia,” meaning a mish-mash or mixup. Eventually, the jambalaya made its way to Cajun country, lost those damn tomatoes, and became the more tasty brown jambalaya we know and love today.
Every year a jambalaya cookoff is held at the Jambalaya Festival in Gonzales Louisiana, located on the far eastern outskirts of Cajun Country. Here you can sample some of the best jambalaya you’ve ever tasted. Unfortunately, the festival finished last weekend, so you’ll have to wait a whole year to see what I’m talking about (damned procrastination reared its ugly head again).
If you’d like to try making your own jambalaya, here’s a good recipe I found for feeding 120 people, or as I like to call it, my immediate family. If you don’t have that many mouths to feed, you might try this recipe which won the 1978 Jambalaya World Championship title.
So Carlos, I hope this answers all your jambalaya related questions. If not, just write back, and I promise you an answer sometime in the next 20 years.
Jambalaya (On the Bayou):