It's the biggest, baddest, rowdiest celebration of the year, and it involves shiny beads and open-container alcohol. It's Mardi Gras, which falls on February 13 this year; thousands of tourists will descend on New Orleans to dance in the streets, catch bead necklaces and trinkets, and eat and drink their way through a city that's famous for its culinary scene.
How did we luck out with a holiday devoted purely to partying? Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday,"also known as Shrove Tuesday, a day in the Catholic religion when you’re meant to indulge yourself (hence the "fat" portion of the name) before fasting for the next 40 days during Lent. So it's actually OK to eat, drink, and go wild for a night. Whether you're religious or not, consider it the perfect excuse to gorge yourself on food, food, and more food. Oh, and cocktails. (That New Year's resolution feels like eons ago, doesn't it?)
If you can’t make it down to Bourbon Street to take part in the fun, celebrate at home with these Mardi Gras food traditions.
1. King Cakes
With its messy splatters of colorful sugar and glitter, it may look like a four-year-old's art project, but trust us—King Cake is the real deal. Made of a delicious Danish dough that’s dyed the traditional Mardi Gras colors (purple, green, and yellow), then braided and smothered in sugar, this treat is popular at plenty of parties. There's a good reason: A small plastic toy in the shape of a baby, representing baby Jesus, is baked into the cake, and whoever finds the baby in their slice is said to have good luck. (Though it's also said that the lucky finder is obligated to throw the next year's Mardi Gras party and provide the King Cake, so maybe it's not such a good deal after all.) What's so royal about this treat? Its name is a nod to the three kings who visited the baby Jesus after his birth.
Have you ever eaten a traditional Spanish paella? Think of jambalaya as its New Orleans cousin. Similar in texture and form, jambalaya was brought to this region by Spaniards and adapted as a modernized version of paella for the New World. There's one big paella ingredient that's missing, however: the highly-prized, pricey saffron. Instead of saffron, tomatoes were added to the rice dish, giving it a distinct flavor and color. While you'll see jambalaya on menus in many NOLA restaurants, you can also find it at church fairs, weddings, and family reunions in Louisiana, where it's often cooked in large quantities in a cast-iron pot over a wood fire.
Consider yourself warned if you’re a bit squeamish about seafood: Crawfish, or the lowcountry’s version of shrimp, has been a Louisiana tradition since 1755. At this time, the Acadians arrived in the state from the shores of Canada and decided to look for a seafood alternative. They discovered that crawfish were easy to find, especially in the still, inland waters called bayous. Over time, the Acadians became the Cajuns, and crawfish remained a staple in the diets of many in the area. Today, the majority of crawfish are farmed—a $120 million industry, FYI— so you can definitely buy and have these critters shipped to you, if you really want the full Mardi Gras experience.
4. Creole Cuisine
It’s a pretty safe bet that if you're in NOLA—whether it’s Mardi Gras or not—you’ll see many restaurant menus with the word "creole." It’s a style of cooking that started in Louisiana and blends the traditions and spices of many different nationalities, including French, West African, German, Italian, Spanish, Indian Caribbean, and Portuguese. If you're dining in a restaurant that serves creole food, you’ll likely see everything from jambalaya (see above) to gumbo, which is sort of like a chili, and many more dishes, like crawfish etouffé and red beans and rice.
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