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Jambalaya is a Creole dish, originating from the Mississippi River delta region of the United States. Early European colonialists, and later immigrants, brought their familiar taste flavors from France or Spain and adapted them to the area’s locally available food resources. Among them, the most prominent, particularly at the markets of the bustling port of New Orleans was seafood. This remains true today, and shrimp jambalaya is one of the city’s signature culinary traditions.
There are several theories, and some amusing folklore, about the invention of jambalaya and how it got its name. The most likely explanation is a derivative of the southern French word jambalaia for “mix and mash” and “rice pilaf.” In finished appearance, it most closely resembles the Spanish paella, a rice pilaf cooked with broth and a variety of regional vegetables and meats.
Creole jambalaya, sometimes called red jambalaya, traditionally incorporates tomato. Cajun jambalaya, also called brown jambalaya, is a variation from the rural swamplands of Louisiana state that might contain unusual ingredients such as alligator or crawfish, a tiny freshwater lobster. While most any protein or variety of meats can be used, shrimp jambalaya, whether Creole or Cajun style, is arguably the most popular.
Shrimp jambalaya is popular for many reasons. The dish is easy to cook, only needs one pot or pan, and can be prepared with ingredients and flavors to suit any taste preference. The traditional vegetables are onion, celery and green bell pepper. The addition of a spicy, smoked sausage such as andouille, a local variety, is very popular. Many of the spices typically used to flavor the dish are Caribbean in origin, and include bay leaves, oregano, thyme, and cayenne pepper. A splash of bottled hot sauce is often added.
Cooking steps may differ from kitchen to kitchen, but the basic technique is to add rice to the pot when the meat and vegetables have finished cooking in its spiced broth, usually chicken stock. Any type of rice can be used, but a long grain white variety is best. Simmered and minimally stirred, the rice will cook by absorbing all the smoky, flavored liquid. The addition of shrimp to the pot should be timed so that they finish cooking at the same time as the rice.
There are several less conventional ways to cook shrimp jambalaya. The most common of these is to cook the rice separately in either water or chicken broth, and to serve by ladling a gravy of jambalaya over it. The gravy can be prepared and kept warm in an electric slow cooker with the shrimp kept and served separately.
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