What You Need to Eat & Drink in New Orleans

I remember the first time I tried Louisiana cooking. I was 15 and just started my first job at Popeyes Chicken. I know, I know totally unauthentic, but growing up in Vancouver, Canada, there just wasn't much Southern food available. The moment I dug into my first bowl of jambalaya and red beans and rice changed my life. Okay, I may be exaggerating here, but I do recall saying "holy crap, what is this delicious awesomeness and what have I been missing out on?"


It was then I vowed to travel to New Orleans one day. My dreams finally came true this past February. I spent the entire trip stuffing my face with all the mouthwatering Southern food I could get my hands on. The result of my foodie adventures? I'm convinced New Orleans has some of the best food on the entire planet.


What makes the food in the Big Easy so special? It has to do with New Orleans' unique history and diverse landscape.

France claimed the territory in 1682. In the 1700s, slaves were brought over from Africa and German farm families were given free land to settle along the Mississippi River. At the same time, the Acadians (Frenchmen from Nova Scotia) were driven out of Canada and settled in the bayous of Southern Louisiana. These people would become known as Cajuns. The Spanish took over in 1764 and the 1800s saw a mass influx of Italian and Irish immigrants.

Over time, these different cultures started to blend together. The Cajuns created their own style of cooking, while Creole cuisine blended French, Spanish, West African, Amerindian, German, Italian, and Irish influences.

Okay, history lesson done! Now it's time to get to the good stuff. After eating my way through the entire city, I've come up with a list of 10 dishes and drinks you need to devour in New Orleans.

1) Gumbo


Forget soup, gumbo warms you right up on a cold day. This hearty stew calls for okra to be simmered for hours in a roux (a rich, dark stock made from butter or oil and flour), with a collection of meats (seafood, chicken, or sausage), onions, celery, and peppers. Served over rice, gumbo is packed with flavour and will leave you wanting more and more.

2) Hurricanes



I went to New Orleans during Mardi Gras which means I slurped down my fair share of Hurricanes. Don't be fooled by its fruity colour, a few glasses of these and you'll be under the table!

The iconic cocktail was created at Pat O'Brien's bar (one of my favourite spots in the French Quarter) during World War II when booze like whisky was in low supply. To get one case of whisky, liquor salesmen made bar owners buy up to 50 cases of rum, which was in high supply. The owners thought "how are we going to use all this rum?"-- and so the Hurricane was born. To this day, the recipe hasn't changed a bit. Packed with rum and mixed with a variety of fruit juices and grenadine, the Hurricane is a force to be reckoned with.

3) Beignets



Do yourself a favour and head to Cafe Du Monde. Here, you'll see why beignets put doughnuts to shame. Introduced by French colonists in the 1800s, beignets are made from yeast dough, fried to perfection, and then topped with heaps of powered sugar. Eat them while they're hot and sip on a cafe au lait while you're at it.

4) Po-Boys



If you're a sandwich enthusiast, you'll fall head over heels for the po-boy. Short for "poor boy", the first po-boy was served during the Great Depression and featured cut potatoes and roast beef gravy. It's still a staple today, however looks a bit different from the po-boys served in the 1930s. Fried shrimp, oysters, catfish, crab, or roast beef covered in savoury gravy are packed between fresh French bread. From there, feel free to top it off with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, hot sauce, mayo, and other fixins. Get the best po-boys in town at Johnny's Po-Boys.

5) Crayfish Etouffee


I know it doesn't look like the prettiest thing to eat but trust me, crawfish etouffee is to die for. In fact, I'm drooling just thinking about it. Etouffee comes from the French word "to smother" and describes how the dish is prepared. Loaded with succulent crayfish, this thick stew is made with roux and a variety of Creole seasonings, and then served over rice. If you're thinking "this sounds similar to gumbo", it's not as crayfish etouffee has a completely different flavour.

 6) Jambalaya

Photo Credit: Gunnar Grimnes
Jambalaya is a hodge-podge of everything and considered New Orleans' version of paella. Toss chicken, andouille sausage, seafood, and an assortment of veggies in a pot, add rice to absorb the stock, and voila, you've got jambalaya. This one-pot dish is easy to make, which means you don't have to go all the way to New Orleans to enjoy it. Here's the recipe I use at home.

7) Grenades



When we landed in NOLA, all we kept hearing about was the Hand Grenade. On Fat Tuesday, we finally found it at Tropical Isle.  Nicknamed "New Orleans' most powerful drink", the Hand Grenade recipe is top secret and can only be bought at Tropical Isle. It tastes like a blend of vodka and melon liqueur, but who knows what's actually in it. A must-try if you end up on Bourbon Street!

8) Alligator


Photo Credit: Julie Glasgow

This is for all the adventurous eaters out there. I didn't think I'd have the guts to try alligator, but when Julie offered a taste of her alligator sausage po-boy, I said yolo and took a big bite. I was surprised how tasty it was! In New Orleans, you can get alligator anything. Gator on a stick, fried alligator, alligator cheesecake, blackened alligator, you name it, the Big Easy's got it.

9) Red Beans and Rice


This has got to be my favourite Southern dish. Typically served on Mondays, red beans and rice combines shimmering red beans with leftover pork from the big Sunday roast. The beans cook all day and come out smooth, savoury, and oh so satisfying. It can be served with a side of sausage, pork chops, or my favourite -- fried chicken.

10) King Cake

Photo Credit: Bret Everson

Got a sweet tooth? If so, you'll love king cake. Made of braided Danish pasty, sprinkled with cinnamon,  and coated with purple, green, and gold icing, this cake is one of the most popular foods during Mardi Gras. Inside each cake you'll find a small toy baby. The person who gets the slice with the baby is responsible for hosting the next party and baking the next king cake.


What's your favourite New Orleans dish? Leave me a comment below and let me know!

Melissa Li

I’m a Canadian girl on a quest to step foot in every continent before I’m 30. You’ll most likely find me chowing down on Japanese ramen, partying at a music festival, hiking to the top of a scenic lookout, cuddling with cats, or chilling out at the beach. I’ve visited over 60 countries so far and hope to inspire you to do the same.

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