Jambalaya was born out of necessity for filling but inexpensive meals made from easily available ingredients. The dish started appearing at church fairs during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and later, emerged from small quantity indoor cooking to become the ideal dish for outdoor cooking over hardwood fires. It was quickly adopted for political rallies, weddings, family reunions, and other large gatherings due to the use of big black cast iron pots, which made preparation easy. The dish experienced a surge in popularity during the Great Depression in the 1930s as many people found the simple recipe of vegetables and rice a filling and cost-effective option.
There are many theories to the name, ‘Jambalaya.’ The name is believed to be a compound word from the French word ‘Jambon’ (ham) mixed with the African word ‘Aya’ (rice), as there were many slaves in the Louisiana at the time. Another theory is based on the story of a traveller in an old guesthouse in Louisiana who asked the cook, named Jean, to “sweep something together” in French. The resulting phrase “Jean, balayez!” eventually became ‘jambalaya’. The Native American Atakapa tribe claim the word originates from the phrase “Sham, pal ha! Ya!” meaning “Be full, not skinny! Eat Up!” which was later pronounced ‘jambalaya’ due to Spanish influence.
Creole jambalaya contains tomatoes. Onions, peppers, and celery are cooked with the meat, before adding the tomatoes, stock, and rice. The content is brought to the boil before being covered and left to simmer until the rice has absorbed the stock. If done properly, the dish will have red hue from the tomatoes. That is why Creole jambalaya is sometimes called ‘red jambalaya’.
On the other hand, Cajun jambalaya does not contain tomatoes. The meat is cooked until it caramelises, before vegetables are added. Once cooked, the stock and rice are put in. Cajun jambalaya usually has a brown colour due to the meat dissolving in the broth. It also has a smokier flavour as the meat was allowed to brown first.