With over 12,000 miles of coastline, it's little wonder America has such a deep love of seafood.
From Maine's lobster to California's calamari, the variations and preparations of seafood in America are expansive and wonderful. But here in New Orleans, we don't just live by the sea. We live below it. With it. In it. Seafood isn't a section on our menus, it's part of who we are. And when you taste it, you know this city is a part of it as well.
Just as much as seafood shaped New Orleans, our cultures and traditions shaped seafood. Specifically, the way it is prepared and eaten.
The Fish Fry
To see the influence of this city's culture on its seafood, look no further than the humble fish fry.
Per capita, few American cities have more Catholics than New Orleans, and associated practices and traditions so ingrained in local culture that many non-Catholics follow them. For example, on Fridays during Lent you'll find fried fish being served in churches, homes and restaurants across the city. Of course, in true New Orleans style, the hot, golden, crispy fillets of fish you find will not feel like much of a sacrifice.
A typical fish fry starts with mounds of fish filets (speckled trout and catfish work well, but so does tilapia and most any firm white fish) dredged in a seasoned cornmeal-based breading and fried. To serve, the fish is often paired with a wedge of lemon and condiments like tartar sauce, cocktail sauce or ketchup. And of course hot sauce. On the side, you'll often see potato salad, green beans, collard greens, or French fries.
If you come across a fish fry in New Orleans, there's a decent chance it's made with Zatarain's Fish Fri. Here's a good recipe for New Orleans-style fried fish.
The Crawfish Boil
The crawfish is another local seafood celebrity. In New Orleans, crawfish isn't just food; it's a party, a culture, and a meal all boiled into one. And believe it or not, the crawfish boil wasn't even born in New Orleans.
While Native Americans were the first to eat crawfish, the Cajuns of rural southern Louisiana developed the style and flavor enjoyed today: fresh crawfish boiled in is a bright, salty, spicy brine that perfumes the air for hundreds of feet in every direction.
In Louisiana, crawfish season runs roughly from February through May. During that time, there are hundreds of crawfish boils every weekend, in backyards, in public parks, beside bayous and on festival grounds.
The broth crawfish are boiled in gets its intense flavor from many things, but the predominant flavor comes from the spice mixture you add. It can come in the form of sacks containing whole spices, powdered mixes or liquid concentrates. Some cooks use more than one or all three. (And in New Orleans, chances are good that it comes from a box, jar or bottle with Zatarain's on the label!)
Here's where it gets confusing: Even though it's used most often for boiling crawfish, these spice blends are called "Crab Boil." Why? Because that's how it's always been. Boiled crabs and shrimp are classic dishes you find all over New Orleans. The same spices we use for crawfish also work splendidly with crabs, shrimp, or just about any other thing you want to boil.
Often, boil chefs will supplement packaged spice blends with additions such as cayenne pepper, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, whole black peppercorns, bay leaves, salt, lemon juice, garlic powder, lemon pepper and the list goes on and on.
Another facet a crawfish boil that varies widely depending on who you ask is what goes with the crawfish in the pot. The usual suspects include corn, onions, garlic, potatoes, sausage and lemons. Other ingredients on the guest list include mushrooms, oranges, artichokes and even pineapple.
If you're planning to throw a crawfish boil - and you definitely should - expect non-Louisianans to eat about 2-3 pounds of crawfish. If you're inviting someone from New Orleans, you can bump that up to about 5 pounds.
For a full rundown of the process, check out our Crawfish Boil recipe.
It's against Louisiana law* to discuss seafood without mentioning seafood po'boys. The classic New Orleans sandwich served on French bread features just about any protein you can think of, but this conversation is all about shrimp, oysters and fish.
*Well, maybe not against the law, but it's definitely frowned upon.
Picture this: A loaf of French bread, crusty on the outside, light and airy on the inside, fresh shredded lettuce, fresh sliced tomatoes, a layer of good mayo, cold dill pickles slices, a small mountain of hot, golden, fried shrimp and a healthy, if slightly reckless, shaking of hot sauce across the whole thing.
If it sounds amazing, that's because it absolutely is.
The seafood po'boy is a global tourist destination in itself. A must-see, must-try stop on any legit New Orleans visitor's agenda. Ask a local for tips and you may hear advice like, "get a peacemaker, dressed." "Peacemaker" means half fried shrimp, half fried gulf oysters. "Dressed" means mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato (and sometimes pickle, depending on where you are).
In New Orleans, a po'boy is never hard to find. They're sold in restaurants, bars, supermarkets and corner stores city-wide. But they're also pretty easy to make at home, and you can use Zatarain's to give them authentic New Orleans flavor. Here's a shrimp Po Boy recipe if you'd like to try.