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Blended cultures add spice to New Orleans cuisine



From Gail O'Neill
CNN Travel Now

(CNN) -- Nestled in a bend of the mighty Mississippi River, New Orleans, Louisiana, is known for its Mardi Gras and merriment. But many tourists -- like the locals -- know it's also a place to find a memorable meal.

Dining choices range from the formality of British high tea to corner po'-boy sandwich shops. The time-honored custom of combining flavors from various cultures keeps serious foodies flocking to the Big Easy for one-stop tours of the world's cultural and culinary traditions.

Slaves from West Africa were the original stewards of the city's Creole cuisine. Their contributions include staples like okra and rice and the process of stewing foods. The French introduced delicate sauces, and Spaniards brought tomatoes to the table. Native Americans added life-sustaining spice.

Click for recipes of these delicious dishes from "Commander's Kitchen"

chowder •  Oyster Chowder

jambalaya •  Seafood Jambalaya

shortcake •  Ponchatoula Strawberry Shortcake

"They knew such things as (the fact that) if you put green pepper into a sauce, it kept bacteria from growing on your food," says Bethany Bultman, author of "Compass American Guides: New Orleans" (1996, 299 pages, Fodors Travel Publications).

But instinct is as important as heritage in this cooking city.

Leah Chase, chef and co-owner at the Dooky Chase restaurant, is known as one of the best chefs in the city. She says the profession is a natural fit for her.

"I like feeding people," Chase says.

Gumbo, jambalaya, etoufee

When her in-laws opened the restaurant in 1941, segregation still prevailed, and African-Americans who wanted fine-dining experiences had few choices. Chase says she wanted "linen table cloths, tables set properly and good service" for her disenfranchised guests. She provided that and city favorites like gumbo, jambalaya and shrimp etoufee.

On the other side of town, Commander's Palace has been in the elegant dining business since 1880. Co-owner Ti Adelaide Martin says excitement is the key ingredient in her family's success.

"We like to respect and sort of revere the traditions," Martin says. "But we're about evolving and changing and that's what Creole food is about. So we keep pushing the envelope."

Commander alumni chefs Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme found fame by pushing the envelope there. The restaurant was Prudhomme's platform for introducing blackened fish during the 1980s.

Traditional tea

While Commander's might dabble with the unconventional, the Windsor Court Hotel sticks with tradition in serving its English tea.

The Palm Court Jazz Cafe serves up live music, another New Orleans specialty  

The restaurant offers tea etiquette classes for those unfamiliar with the proper way to grasp a teacup.

And for travelers who want to shed formality for frivolity, New Orleans nightlife has plenty to offer, particularly at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe.

"We have many visitors from Japan, Europe, from South America. And the main reason a lot of these people come is to hear this music," says Nina Buck, Palm Court owner.

New Orleans music and meals make it a frequent place for over-indulgence.

"We don't have healthy cuisine," says Bultman. 'We die young, but we're happy."

• Dooky Chase
• Creole Cooking with Leah Chase
• Commander's Palace
• Windsor Court Hotel
• Palm Court Jazz Cafe

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