Jambalaya (pronounced /ˌdʒʌmbəˈlaɪə/ or <jum-buh-LIE-uh>) is a casserole-style dish of Spanish and French influence originating in Louisiana. Jambalaya is traditionally a one pot dish, with a variety of meats and seafood, vegetables, and spicy seasonings. The dish is completed by adding raw rice to the pot's stock so that the rich stock flavor is absorbed by the grains as the rice cooks. Both creole and cajun versions exist; the Creole variety, considered original, is also known as "red jambalaya" due to the inclusion of tomatoes.
The origin of both the name and the dish known as "jumbalaya" are unclear, perhaps appropriately, considering the number of ingredients and variations involved. It developed in Louisiana under various European, African, and Native American influences, and a place and time when written records of recipes were uncommon. Until very modern times, Louisiana cooking was largely confined to the local region with the result that folklore has often became “fact.” Jumbalaya represents the "melting pot" that is New Orleans in a very literal way. The very variety of methods of preparing the dish and the creative use of locally available ingredients, both in place of those from the original recipes and as a way to use leftovers and whatever the local people had to eat, is a hallmark of this tasty dish. As such, it reflects human ingenuity and almost infinite creativity in a very practical way.
Until the mid-1980s, dishes like étouffée, gumbo, and jambalaya were limited to the Louisiana Creole people and Cajun communities of Louisiana. Since then, however, this cuisine has been brought to the attention of the world by chefs like Paul Prudhomme.
Rice stews have a long lineage in the culinary traditions of the French, Spanish, African, and Native Americans, and the quintessential melting pot of New Orleans owes some of its culinary distinction to these influences. However, jambalaya (and many local cousin dishes) has a distinct Louisiana parentage in its native bayou ingredients. Any variety or combination of meats may be used to make jambalaya. It was regarded as a dish into which any leftovers could be added, essential to Louisiana people with little resources. This flexibility of ingredients together with its stimulating flavors have made jambalaya a satisfying favorite of cooks and diners, both affluent and poor, ensuring its enduring popularity.
There are two primary methods of making jambalaya—Creole and Cajun. Cajun food is considered the rough and robust food of the countryside, most often characterized by a dark roux, very spicy flavor, and includes significant amounts of animal fat. Creole food tends to be more refined "city" food with greater emphasis on the use of cream and butter.
The original and more common method, Creole jambalaya, is also called "red jambalaya" because it includes tomatoes. First, meat is added, usually chicken and sausage such as andouille or smoked sausage. Next vegetables and tomatoes are added, followed by seafood. Rice and stock are added in equal proportions at the very end. The mixture is brought to a boil and left to simmer for 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the recipe, with infrequent stirring.
The second style, more characteristic of southwestern and south-central Louisiana, is Cajun jambalaya and contains no tomatoes. Cajun Jambalaya originates from Louisiana's rural, low-lying swamp country where crawfish, shrimp, oysters, alligator, duck, turtle, boar, venison, and other wild game were readily available. The meat is browned in a cast-iron pot. Pieces of meat sticking to the bottom of the pot are what give Cajun jambalaya its brown color. When cooked, the meat is removed to a separate plate. A little vegetable oil is added if there is not enough fat in the pot. The " trinity" (of onions, celery, and green bell pepper) is added and sautéed until soft. Stock and seasonings are added in the next step, and then the meats are returned to the pot. This mixture is then simmered, covered, for at least one hour. Lastly, the mixture is brought to a boil and rice is added to the pot. It is then covered and left to simmer over very low heat for at least 1/2 hour without stirring. The dish is ready when the rice has cooked.
A third method, called "white jambalaya," is less common. In this version, meat and vegetables are cooked separately from the rice. At the same time, rice is cooked in a savory stock and then added to the meat and vegetables before serving. This dish is rare in Louisiana as it is seen as a "quick" attempt to make jambalaya, popularized outside the state to shorten cooking time.
Jambalaya originated from the original European sector of New Orleans (known as the "French Quarter" or Vieux Carré), and likely was an attempt by the Spanish to make paella in the New World. Saffron was not readily available, and so tomatoes became a substitute. Over time, spices from the Caribbean changed this New World "paella" into a unique dish.
Cajun Jambalaya has more of a smoky and spicy flavor than its cousin Creole Jambalaya. It was adopted after absorption of white French Creoles into the Cajun population following their fall from power in New Orleans after the Civil War. 
Starting with church fairs, which were the largest public gatherings during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, jambalaya emerged from small quantity indoor cooking to become the ideal dish for outdoor cooking over hardwood fires. Big black cast iron pots made preparation so easy and economical that jambalaya was rapidly adopted for political rallies, weddings, family reunions, and other affairs.
Fittingly for a product of Cajun culture, the word "jambalaya" seems to have as many possible origins and authors as the complex dish has ingredients and variations—and most of these are easier to discredit than to verify. Until very modern times, Louisiana cooking was largely confined to the local region. The result is a meager written record of the area's food history, and folklore has often became “fact.”
The most commonly repeated folklore is that the word derives from the combination of the French jambon meaning ham, the French article à la a contraction of à la manière de meaning "in the style of," and ya, thought to be of West African origin meaning rice. Hence, the dish was named "jamb à la ya." However, ham is not the signature ingredient of the dish and there is no known African language in which "ya" means "rice."
Another source suggests that the word comes from the Spanish jamon (ham) + paella, a noted Spanish rice dish. However, Spanish speakers would call a ham paella paella con jamon, not jamon paella.
There is also a popular old wives' tale about the origin of the word "jambalaya:"
Late one evening a traveling gentleman stopped by a New Orleans inn which had little food remaining from the evening meal. The traveler instructed the cook, "Jean, balayez!" or "Jean, sweep something together!" in the local dialect. The guest pronounced the resulting hodge-podge dish as "Jean balayez."
The first print appearance of any variant of the word "jambalaya" in any language occurred in Leis amours de Vanus; vo, Lou paysan oou théâtré, by Fortuné (Fourtunat) Chailan, first published in Provencal in 1837. It includes this text (translated):
It is also found in a poem by Louis Charles Felix Peise, "La Testo et la Coua de la Serp," from his book Leis Talounados de Barjomau (1865), which includes this line (translated):
Both publications are French and neither example used the word in a culinary sense. In both cases it indicates a mish-mash, rabble, or mixture—a meaning that lends itself well to Jambalaya.
The earliest appearance of the word in print in English occurs in the May 1849 issue of the American Agriculturalist, where Solon Robinson refers to a recipe for "Hopping Johnny (jambalaya)." Interestingly, while the names Hopping John and jambalaya are treated as referring to the same dish, the recipe is clearly a jambalaya, not a "Hopping John" which is made from rice and beans or peas. An article in the 1875 New Orleans Times reported jambalaya as “spelled in French jumbliade; but the dish is of Indian origin” and “originally made of zizania aquatica, or wild rice … and of several varieties of beans or frijoles as the Mexican Indians call them.” This recipe clearly describes Hopping John, not jambalaya.
Jambalaya did not appear in a cookbook until 1878, when The Gulf City Cook Book, by the Ladies of the St. Francis Street Methodist Episcopal Church, was printed in South Mobile, Alabama. It contains a recipe for “JAM BOLAYA.”
The variety, quantities, and ratio of ingredients makes nutritional breakdown subject to the creativity of the chef, who has full license to make each preparation different from one another. In general, the dish is heavy on proteins and spice, with starch and vegetables running behind. One jambalaya recipe offers this breakdown of nutrients.
The country song, "Jambalaya," written by Moon Mullican and Hank Williams Sr. celebrates the dish. Hank Williams copied the Jambalaya musical melody from an earlier tune recorded in Cajun French called "Grand Texas." The song has been re-recorded with Hank Williams' words translated into Cajun French. Cajuns now consider it to be one of their own songs.
In 1968, Louisiana Governor John J. McKeithen proclaimed Gonzales, Louisiana, the Jambalaya Capital of the World. Every spring, the annual Jambalaya Festival is held in Gonzales.
Dishes similar to jambalaya exist both in Creole and Cajun cuisines of Louisiana as well as the cuisines of other parts of the world.
Rice cooked in the pot with the other ingredients is what distinguishes jambalaya from gumbos and étouffées, each of which is served over rice that has been prepared separately. Jambalaya is considered by most Louisianians to be a simple to prepare, yet filling, rice dish; gumbos and étouffées are considered more difficult to perfect.
Gumbo is a stew or soup originating in Louisiana, and found across the Gulf Coast of the United States and into the U.S. South. The dish is based on the French soup bouillabaisse, the Spanish "holy trinity" of celery, bell peppers and onion, and the use of filé powder (ground sassafras leaves) which is Native American. But the dish got its name from the French interpretation of the West African vegetable okra.
A typical gumbo contains one or more kinds of poultry, shellfish, and smoked pork. Typical poultry include chicken, duck, or quail. Local shellfish such as the freshwater crayfish, crab, and shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico are frequently used. Tasso and andouille provide a smoky flavor to the dish, which is traditionally served over rice.
Étouffée is typically served with shellfish or chicken over rice, similar to gumbo. It is very popular in New Orleans and in the bayou country of the southernmost half of Louisiana. In étouffée the main ingredient originally was crayfish, and purists do not consider the dish to be étouffée unless crayfish is at least included in the ingredients.
Hopping John is a much simpler dish than jambalaya. Old-time recipes sometimes used these two names interchangeably, adding to the perception of Louisiana casserole dishes as initially being a mishmash of interchangeable ingredients and names that eventually settled into established preparations. It is the Southern United States' version of the rice and beans dish traditional throughout the Caribbean. The ingredients include field peas or crowder peas (black-eyed peas) and rice, with chopped onion and sliced bacon, seasoned with a little salt.
Dishes in which rice and other ingredients are cooked together (the signature feature of jambalaya) are common in other cuisines. Some of the most similar are mentioned here:
Paella is a rice and seafood or meat dish which originated in the community of Valencia, near lake Albufera, a lagoon in eastern Spain. Spaniards consider paella to be one of their national dishes. Valencian paella consists of white rice, green vegetables, meat, snails, beans, and seasoning. Seafood paella replaces meat and snails with seafood and omits beans and green vegetables. Mixed paella is a free-style combination of meat, seafood, and sometimes beans.
Pilaf is a dish in which rice (or another grain) is browned in oil, and then cooked in a seasoned broth. Depending on the local cuisine it may also contain a variety of meat and vegetables. Pilaf and similar dishes are common to Middle Eastern, Central and South Asian, Latin American, and Caribbean cuisine.
Risotto is a rich, creamy, traditional Italian rice dish. There are many different risotto recipes with different ingredients, but they are all based on rice of an appropriate variety cooked according to a standard procedure. Risotto can be made using many kinds of vegetable, meat, fish, seafood and legumes, and different types of wine and cheese may be used.
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