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The pleasures of a plate heaped high with jambalaya—the simple Louisianan dish typically made with rice and often dotted with spicy sausage, chicken, shrimp, or vegetables—are straightforward. Less so is the story of how the dish came to be.
Louisiana’s history brims with different peoples and cultures, all of whom claim roles in jambalaya’s delicious creation: Spaniards, Frenchmen, Creoles, Cajuns, and African Americans. Thanks to the melting pot that comprised its origin, lots of variations arose.
Kelly Hamilton, the founder of New Orleans Culinary History Tours, gives the most credit to the Spanish, who ruled modern-day Louisiana and a third of what is today America between 1762 and 1800. (Spain took the lands over from France, which had controlled much of modern America since 1682.)
Not long after the Spaniards arrived on the scene, jambalaya made its first appearance, Hamilton said. It was an attempt to recreate Spain’s saffron-scented paella using New World ingredients.
"The earliest [jambalaya] called for a type of sausage called chaurice, and that is a take on the Spanish chorizo,” Hamilton said. (Chorizo is often present in paella.) Like chorizo, chaurice is a coarsely ground, spiced pork sausage.
Early recipes also called for ham, Hamilton noted, for which the Spanish word is “jamón." Hamilton suggests that an echo of that word survives in the first letter of "jambalaya." Furthermore, "if you look at the word ’paella,’ the sound at the end, the ‘ya,’ it’s similar to the ‘ya’ in ‘jambalaya,’” she said.
Without saffron in ready supply, some think the Spanish turned to tomatoes as a substitute, giving the dish a telltale red color. This version, known as "red" jambalaya, is favored by the Creoles, the descendants of Spanish and French colonialists and enslaved African peoples.
But Cajuns lay claim to so-called "brown" jambalaya, a variety containing no tomatoes. Cajuns descend from a group of French Canadians who were expelled from the former French colony Acadia (in Eastern Canada) in the late 18th century. They settled in Louisiana’s low-lying swamps, where foodstuffs like crawfish, shrimp, oysters, alligators, duck, turtle, and boar were plentiful. These went into their jambalaya, which also bore a resemblance to the pilau dishes of Provence in France. Cajun cooking rarely calls for tomatoes, which explains their absence in “brown” jambalaya.
African influences are present, too. Some scholars think jambalaya is a descendent of jollof, a West African dish of rice, tomato, various meats, and seafood. Hamilton tellingly noted that most enslaved Africans living in Louisiana were captured in West Africa, where jollof is still popular today. Those African slaves often labored in Louisianan kitchens in the pre–Civil War era (and afterward as hired help), helping to shape the region’s cuisine.
Consider all this the next time you tuck into a steaming plate of jambalaya, whose history is anything but simple.
Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya
5 1/2 pounds chicken pieces (drumsticks, thighs, and breast halves with skin and bones)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 pounds andouille* or other spicy smoked pork sausage, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices
3 medium onions, chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 cups chicken stock or broth
1 1/2 cups water
1 (14- to 16-ounce) can whole tomatoes in juice, drained and chopped
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
2 1/2 cups long-grain white rice, rinsed and drained well
1 cup thinly sliced scallion greens
1. Pat chicken dry and season with salt. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then brown chicken in batches, without crowding, turning once, 6 to 8 minutes total (add remaining 2 tablespoons oil as needed between batches). Transfer to a bowl as browned.
2. Reduce heat to moderate and brown sausage in 4 batches in fat remaining in skillet, turning, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined bowl as browned.
3. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon fat from skillet, then cook onions, celery, and bell pepper in skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until onions are golden brown and softened, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add 1 cup stock and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Transfer mixture to a wide 8-quart heavy pot and add chicken, water, tomatoes, cayenne (if using), and remaining cup stock. Simmer, partially covered, until chicken is tender, about 30 minutes.
4. Preheat oven to 325°F.
5. Transfer chicken with tongs to a clean bowl and measure cooking liquid with vegetables, adding additional water as necessary to measure 7 cups. If over 7 cups, boil to reduce.
6. Stir rice into cooking liquid (in pot). Arrange chicken over rice (do not stir), then bring to a boil over high heat, uncovered, without stirring. Bake, covered, in middle of oven until rice is tender and most of liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let jambalaya stand, covered, 10 minutes. Gently stir in scallion greens, sausage, and salt to taste.
* Available at specialty foods shops and Citarella (212-874-0383).