This year, Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans begin February 25th. Originally a Catholic holiday ushering in the Lenten season, Mardi Gras came to the New World with French settlers in the early 18th century. Celebrants host large parades and smaller street processions, throw masked balls, and don purple, green and gold colors for their revelry. For both tourists and locals alike, it’s a time to enjoy amazing food and drinks, from King Cakes to Hurricanes.
Much of New Orleans cuisine has roots in the Creole and Cajun culture, a blend of French, Spanish, Caribbean and African heritages. Breakfasts may start with beignets and chicory coffee. Lunch might be a po-boy or muffuletta sandwich, and desserts range from simple pecan pralines to show-stopping Bananas Foster, a creation of New Orleans’ Brennan’s Restaurant.
Many of the most popular Mardi Gras dishes feature in-season foods from the Gulf Coast. Spring in the region means plenty of seafood in dishes that include grits (ground corn meal) or rice, such as gumbo, étouffée, and jambalaya. Chicken, Andouille sausage or ham can take pride of place in red bean and rice dishes. Casual Mardi Gras get-togethers can feature a crawfish boil, where a huge amount of corn and potatoes are boiled up with fresh seafood and spices, then dumped out on to a long table where guests can help themselves.
Changes in the region’s population, especially after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, have brought Asian influences to the region’s cultural and culinary traditions in exciting and interesting ways. Today, we’re going to talk about how you can add traditional South Asian spices to create your own Mardi Gras dishes.
South Asian Crawfish Boil
Most crawfish fit right in the palm of your hand, which is perfect for this peel-and-eat dish. Like small lobsters, but from freshwater, crawfish are excellent with drawn butter. But to kick it up a notch, try a traditional Louisiana crawfish boil. Just throw every ingredient, including the seafood (with optional Andouille sausage), potatoes, corn, onion, lemons, garlic, bay leaf and Cajun spices, into a pot together and let it boil in several quarts of water until the crawfish turn from brown to bright red. Cajun spice mix includes paprika, cayenne, onion powder, dried oregano, thyme and salt, but you can take this crawfish boil in a new direction by substituting a traditional South Asian spice mix like garam masala or chaat masala. Remember to serve hot sauce on the side.
Tomato-forward Shrimp Creole starts with a base of onion, celery and bell pepper, adds a dash of cayenne and plenty of Cajun spices before gracing a bowl of rice. But this stew-like dish transforms into Shrimp Malacca with a generous amount of curry powder. Invented by a Manhattan cooking teacher, Shrimp Malacca is the perfect blend of South Asian spices and a unique Louisiana heritage.
Many immigrant chefs in New Orleans are using their culinary heritage to reinvent some of the city’s classic dishes, especially gumbo. The basics of gumbo are a protein, roux, filé, onion, celery, bell pepper and spices. But Arvinder Vilkhu, of New Orleans’ Saffron Nola — 2018 James Beard nominee for Best New Restaurant, took a different path. His gumbofeatures the ginger, cilantro, and turmeric of South Asia. Chefs who want to make this at home can substitute the traditional gumbo spices of thyme, white pepper, and cayenne for this new trio, and enjoy the tasty results over rice.