Anyone who’s been to New Orleans will know how important food is to the Louisiana city – it’s a real melting pot of cultures, with culinary influences from France, Spain, Native Americans and West Africa.
So when Mardi Gras rolls around, food is front and centre in NOLA. In the build-up to the big day – which this year falls on February 25 – there are parades, celebrations and parties throughout the city.
Mardi Gras means ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French, and is an opportunity to indulge in rich foods before Lent begins, which is historically a period of fasting. The holiday has religious origins, but in places like New Orleans, it has become a much wider part of the cultural fabric of the city.
Here are some of the dishes you might expect to eat during a proper Louisiana Mardi Gras celebration.
Starters and sides…
These are basically deep-fried balls of goodness – tiny savoury doughnuts, made using cornmeal.
You will come across two major styles of cuisine in New Orleans: Creole and Cajun. Creole is often considered the less spicy, more refined cousin to Cajun seasoning. Everyone has their own particular blend of Creole mix, but it tends to include garlic, oregano and onion. Stewing okra in these spices, along with tomatoes and onions, makes for a tasty side dish.
The popular side dish combines French and Native American influences, and involves corn slowly braised in lots of spices, with vegetables like peppers and onions.
Every culture has its own rice dish, be it biryani or paella, and this is the New Orleans version. It’s traditionally made with rice, tomatoes, vegetables, a meat (often sausage) and some seafood. Like so many NOLA dishes, its base is the Creole ‘Holy Trinity’ of celery, onions and green peppers.
Seafood is a big part of Louisiana cuisine, and it couldn’t get more traditional than crawfish. Spring is crawfish season, which makes it the perfect time for a seafood boil. This is very much a party recipe made for feeding large groups of people, and essentially means having a big pot of crawfish, boiling in a Cajun spice broth.
Shrimp and grits
Cajun spiced shrimp goes perfectly with Southern favourite, grits – boiled cornmeal, with butter and seasoning.
If you’re going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, you know King cake will be on the menu. It’s the traditional holiday dessert, decorated in purple, green and yellow. The recipe is historically French, made using sweet bread dough with sugar on top and cinnamon throughout. King cakes are in a ringed shape and usually have a small plastic figure hidden inside.
If you started your meal with delicious tiny doughnut balls, you might as well end the same way. That’s where beignets come in – deep-fried balls of French pastry covered in icing sugar. Some versions are made like little balls, others are like tiny pillows – all are messy, and the powdered sugar is guaranteed to go all over your clothes.
Moon pies are synonymous with Mardi Gras in New Orleans because they’re traditionally thrown from parade floats into the crowd. They’re a simple snack of two biscuits sandwiched together with a marshmallow filling, coated in chocolate – they’re basically wagon wheels.