What is jambalaya?
Jambalaya is a rice dish that originated in south Louisiana in the 18th century. While there are countless variations, a standard jambalaya contains rice, protein, seasoning vegetables and spices.
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Sure! The most common meat used in jambalaya is smoked pork sausage (such as andouille), which is often paired with chicken. It’s not uncommon to encounter a jambalaya that includes diced ham (such as the heavily spiced and smoked Cajun tasso) or seafood (such as shrimp, crawfish or crabmeat).
Additional flavor comes from diced onion, celery and bell pepper, the mixture known as the “holy trinity,” a New Orleans Creole evolution of the French mirepoix. Cayenne pepper provides a touch of heat.
How did it come to be?
Like so many great things, jambalaya started with a problem. The problem? There was no saffron in south Louisiana in the 1700s, which meant Spanish colonists were unable to make their beloved paella.
Necessity was the mother of invention, and jambalaya was the result of attempts to make a variation of paella using ingredients available locally.
But that’s not the whole story.
Like so many other great things, jambalaya is also the result of a collision of cultures. A single bowl reflects many of the numerous diverse cultures that planted roots in and around New Orleans in the 18th century.
There’s the recipe and technique adapted from the Spanish.
The region wouldn’t have had rice without the influence of Senegalese slaves who brought a knowledge of rice cultivation from West Africa.
Louisiana’s famous sausages likely wouldn’t exist if not for German immigrants who brought their Old World sausage-making skills to Cajun country.
The adapted mirepoix came from the French, and Native Americans likely kicked in the cayenne pepper.
Instead of a melting pot, maybe we should call America the “jambalaya bowl.”
Who eats jambalaya?
In our part of the world, just about everybody. People grow up on jambalaya. Due to its popularity and the relative ease of making large batches, the dish is common at music festivals, tailgate parties, sporting events and holiday feasts. It’s also frequently an easy weeknight meal, served with a salad and maybe a baguette.
Of course, the specific type of jambalaya people are eating depends on where they live.
Red vs. brown
There are as many different jambalayas as there are people who make it, but one big difference, which is related to geography, is the color of the jambalaya. In short, you’re more likely to find red jambalaya in New Orleans and brown jambalaya in the rural parts of south Louisiana.
The difference is tomatoes, an ingredient that would have been hard to come by in Cajun country, whereas the Port of New Orleans gave city dwellers access to a wider range of ingredients and a palate that enjoyed things like tomatoes.
So if you’re eating jambalaya in New Orleans, chances are it's creole (red) jambalaya, and if you’re having a bowl in Cajun country, chances are it’ll be brown.
Don’t worry – while everyone has a preference, both are delicious!
What jambalaya isn’t.
Jambalaya isn’t gumbo or étouffée.
The three dishes are often confused, but the difference is simple: Jambalaya is a rice dish.
In jambalaya, rice is cooked along with the other ingredients and is the most prevalent component in the finished dish.
While gumbo and étouffée often include many of the same ingredients as jambalaya, they are entirely different dishes (gumbo is more like soup, and étouffée is more like stew) and are served with rice that has been cooked separately.
How do I pronounce the word “jambalaya”?
You’ve got a decision to make. For some, it’s JUM-buh-LIE-ya. For others, it’s JAM-buh-LIE-ya. Whether you say JAM or JUM is up to you!
What ingredients do the most popular jambalaya recipes have in common?
The ingredients that every jambalaya has in common are rice as well as the seasoning vegetables of onion, celery and bell pepper. Outside of those essentials, recipes vary widely.
The vast majority of jambalayas you’ll encounter will have some form of sausage (usually a basic smoked pork sausage or the more rustic, heavily spiced andouille), and many will supplement the sausage with chicken. But there may also be other types of pork, like ham, tasso or pulled pork. Shrimp, crabmeat and crawfish are less common but still popular, especially during Lent.
Also, hunting is a beloved pastime in south Louisiana, so game proteins like duck, pheasant and venison will often find their way into a jambalaya recipe.
In New Orleans, your jambalaya is likely to have a reddish tint from tomato, whereas it’ll be browner in color throughout Cajun Country.
How do I make jambalaya?
In a nutshell, you brown your meat, sauté your vegetables, add your rice, add your liquid, bring to a boil, give it a stir, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 20-25 minutes.
If you’d like a more specific plan, try this:
How long does jambalaya take to make?
A from-scratch jambalaya can be made with about 20-30 minutes of prep plus an additional 20-30 minutes of cook time. (Shameful but true plug: Many people in New Orleans use Zatarain’s Jambalaya Mix to save time without sacrificing flavor!)
Are there any special tools or utensils I need to make jambalaya?
None that would be considered a requirement, but you’ll find most experienced jambalaya cooks to be in possession of a large Dutch oven – a heavy, lidded pot – whether it’s seasoned black cast iron or enameled cast iron.
What type of rice can I use in jambalaya?
Any kind, really. Most people use long-grain white rice, but you can make a first-rate jambalaya with jasmine rice, Arborio rice, or brown rice, too. (Just be sure to change the amount of liquid and the cooking time, if necessary, to adjust for the type of rice you’re using.)
Some people like to use parboiled, or converted, rice, which yields jambalaya with distinct grains of rice and less risk of overcooked or mushy rice, but for others that slightly mushy jambalaya rice is exactly what they want!
How do I make my jambalaya less spicy?
Jambalaya is only as spicy as the ingredients you use. If you’d like to make a mild jambalaya, don’t add any cayenne pepper or other hot spices, and make sure any sausage you use isn’t a spicy variety. Zatarain’s makes a mild variety of our Jambalaya Mix, but it’s easy to reduce the spice level of any Jambalaya mix by replacing half (or more or less) of the mix with white rice before preparing.
How is paella different from jambalaya?
The two dishes are quite similar in that they are both rice dishes that typically incorporate a variety of proteins and get flavor from vegetables and spices.
The finished dishes are also similar visually, with comparable proportions of rice to protein. The flavors are very different, though. Whereas the seasoning combination of onion, celery, bell pepper, cayenne pepper and thyme give jambalaya its Creole/Cajun flavors, paella has a Mediterranean flavor profile owing to lemon, paprika, saffron and olives.
How do red and brown jambalaya differ in taste?
The tomatoes in red jambalaya give the dish a brighter, slightly more acidic flavor, whereas the Cajun tendency to thoroughly brown meats and vegetables for a long time give brown jambalaya a deeper, darker, more umami-rich flavor.
How does jambalaya taste versus gumbo or étouffée?
The flavors of the three dishes can be pretty similar if you’re comparing apples to apples. For example, comparing flavors alone, a shrimp and sausage jambalaya would taste a lot like a shrimp and sausage gumbo or a shrimp étouffée that includes sausage. The eating experience, however, is entirely different. Jambalaya is a rice dish and relatively dry compared with wet dishes like gumbo and étouffée.