New Orleans food is something else. In fact, going out to eat in New Orleans is one of the best things to do there. We have visited NOLA several times and have always found that New Orleans cuisine has no boundaries with its out-of-the-box recipes creating an infectious and loveable quality for adventurous eaters. New Orleans is known for its delicious cuisine which is a blend of soul, creole, and cajun food. When it comes to visiting the city, sampling the New Orleans culinary landscape deserves a top spot on any itinerary.
Top 16 Must-Eat Foods In New Orleans
So, what is the best traditional New Orleans food to try? Whether you are planning a visit to New Orleans or just want the taste of a New Orleans menu from the comfort of your home, we’ve got plenty of inspiration lined up. These New Orleans dishes are sure to get your mouth watering – let’s start immediately.
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Gumbo is a delicious soup cooked across Louisiana and is a must-try when visiting New Orleans. Seriously, you cannot visit New Orleans and not eat gumbo – it is akin to sacrilege. The dish contains the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Creole cooking; bell peppers, celery, and onions. And the traditional recipe is held together with thick meat or shellfish stock. Apart from these basic requirements, gumbo can vary quite a bit. There are lots of variations, including hugely popular seafood gumbo.
Gumbo is said to originate from West African cuisine. The West African sister dish typically contains okra, called ‘ki ngombo’. The name stuck and transitioned to gumbo as the dish was introduced into the New Orleans food scene. Gumbo has a strong flavor, and the stock is the most prominent flavor of the dish.
It is hearty and warm – ideal for a light meal on a cold day. It is prepared much like a stew and is stirred over medium-low heat for a prolonged period. Gumbo could take up to 45 minutes to cook and requires real patience, which many say is the dish’s secret ingredient for success.
You shouldn’t have any issues finding somewhere to try gumbo. It is sold all over New Orleans. If you want to cook it yourself, you can head to any central grocery to pick up the necessary ingredients and follow this recipe. Gumbo is low maintenance and a dream to cook and eat – what more could you ask for?
2. Po’ Boy
A po’ boy is a classic, traditional New Orleans food. The sandwich is simple to look at yet delicious, symbolizing Louisianan heritage. You’ll find it all over the state, especially in New Orleans. The sandwich is served on French bread and almost always contains some meat (typically roast beef or seafood).
A creamy remoulade sauce is generously drizzled over the meat. And, usually, you’ll get salad tossed in there as well, like shredded lettuce and tomato – but this varies depending on where you get the po’ boy. One of the most popular New Orleans foods is the cochon de lait po’ boy, which uses the meat of a suckling pig and is considered a delicacy.
The sandwich gets its name from the phrase ‘poor boy’. The Martin Brothers opened a food and coffee stand in 1922, and when the 1929 street car strikes hit, they began to offer free sandwiches to members of the strike unions. The po’ boy became a symbol of solidarity and humanity, and word of this New Orleans food spread like wildfire. The brothers were practically an overnight success.
Taste-wise, what a po’boy tastes like depends on where you buy it. Ingredients vary a lot depending on individual recipes. However, the texture always stays the same, with a mixture of crunchy fried foods and creamy sauce. A po’ boy is a real treat for the senses. The sandwich is cooked by frying the ingredients first, stuffing it, and drizzling it with sauce afterward. You’ll be able to find it all over the place, and while it was once known as a street food delicacy, many restaurants and cafes now offer it too.
Jambalaya is a one-pot dish that, at first glance, appears much like a paella. In fact, the only things that differentiate the two are the spices used in their recipes; jambalaya favors cayenne pepper over saffron, paella’s main spice of choice. You’ll usually find at least one meat in a jambalaya – typically seafood, chicken, or chorizo. Jambalaya contains diced onion, crushed garlic, and lots of spices as well.
As you may have guessed from the paella similarities, jambalaya has influences from France and Spain. The recipe is an adaptation of paella, and its name comes from Jamalaia, a region of southern France. However, jambalaya combines creole, cajun, and European culinary influences. It can be traced back to at least 1885, and nobody knows where or when jambalaya was truly created.
Either way, jambalaya tastes delicious. The dish is a spicy mix of carbs and pungent flavors, a delicious addition to any family meal or dinner table. The mix of vegetables, rice, and meat is a classic one. If you visit New Orleans, you’ll have no difficulty finding this food. It is also a killer dish to master as a homecooked meal.
4. Boiled Crawfish
Boiled crawfish is one of the most dramatic-looking New Orleans foods. The crawfish comes whole with all body parts intact, so if you are looking for something for fussy eaters to eat in New Orleans, boiled crawfish probably isn’t it. For the adventurous amongst you, boiled crawfish is a real delicacy. It is usually served as a main alongside potatoes, corn, and garlic.
Boiled crawfish have a long and illustrious history. The dish dates back to the early 1600s. It is believed to have been a popular dish in Louisiana’s Native American tribes. These people would fish for crawfish in the local rivers, and one tribe – the Houma Tribe – even adopted the fierce crawfish as their symbol. Cajun influence then took over the boiled crawfish dish, and it became an adaptation of lobster dishes in Canada. In 1980, the crawfish was described as Louisiana’s state crustacean – a lofty, if niche, title.
Crawfish taste slightly salty and are much meatier than other crustaceans like crabs. Some people go as far as to claim that the meat tastes like a hybrid of shrimp and crab meat, but we’ll leave that for you to decide. When it comes to cooking techniques, many chefs boil their crawfish alive. However, if you aren’t a fan of that practice, you can also find places that don’t or buy your own crawfish that have already been killed. Cooking them is really simple; you just throw them into boiling hot water until cooked and tender.
Oysters are saltwater mollusks massively associated with luxury dinners and suave champagne drinking. They are served in shells on ice, usually with a lemon slice for extra flavor. Of course, in New Orleans, things are done slightly differently. While you’ll still find the classic raw oysters version of the dish, oysters are also cooked in many other ways. You can find them chargrilled, deep-fired, and even in sandwiches and as an accompanying ingredient. If you think you know how to eat oysters, prepare to rediscover them entirely on a trip to New Orleans.
While we’ve been eating oysters since early human history, they outdate us. Scientists say that oysters first popped up in the Triassic period alongside the dinosaurs, and there are fossil records dating back to 145 million years ago – suggesting that this claim tracks. Oysters have a notoriously acquired taste and are known for being quite bland and slimy in texture. However, served right, oysters are one of the tastiest New Orleans foods to try. And one of the best places to try them is our recommendation; the legendary Casamentos Restaurant. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
6. Fried Chicken
Who doesn’t know and love fried chicken? This is one of the most popular foods to eat in New Orleans, and while it is famed worldwide, the city has its own stamp on the dish. New Orleans is known as a fried chicken hotspot and has some of the most options in the world. Prepare yourself for vast buckets of salt and pepper chicken.
Fried chicken’s leap to popularity is mainly thanks to KFC. Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in 1930 as a simple business operating out of a roadside motel. By 1939, Colonel Harland Sanders had created a top-secret recipe and was expanding his trade across the globe. Of course, before that, humans had been eating chicken for thousands of years, with records showing chicken consumption in Babylon in 600 BC. Fried chicken is an adaptation of classic food in society.
Fried chicken is beloved for its simple but delicious taste. It is lightly salted and has the perfect crunch from its light batter. You’ll find fried chicken all over New Orleans – even at gas stations. One of the top spots though is Willie Mae’s Scotch House. The French Quarter is also known for its booming selection of chicken.
Beignets are a delectable little pastry commonly praised as a French dish. Beignets come in parcels and are dusted in powdered sugar. They taste like donuts, just puffed up with a flaky texture. Beignets are one of our top four recommendations if you are looking for a dessert in New Orleans. They use all the typical cake and pastry ingredients, including yeast, eggs, sugar, and bread flour.
The dessert dates back to the 17th century, and the fried dough itself can be traced back even further – with some claiming the Romans used to eat a form of an early donut. However, New Orleans beignets are believed to have a French influence.
It probably doesn’t shock you to know that beignets are super sweet to taste. The powdered sugar dusting gives them an added sweet kick and is an excellent choice for anyone wanting something tasty. The dessert is cooked by mixing all the ingredients in a large bowl (with warm water and yeast being the key combination), then set aside to allow the mix to rise. The dough is then cut, deep fried as little parcels, dusted with sugar, and then eaten. You can find beignets everywhere in New Orleans, but Cafe Du Monde makes a particularly tasty selection.
8. Turtle Soup
Turtle soup is pretty self-explanatory. The soup comprises turtle meat, a hard-boiled egg or two, vegetables, and a roux. It has more stew consistency than soup and is hailed as a great nutritious meal.
Turtle soup can be traced back to the 1720s and reached peak popularity by the middle half of the century. Later, due to overhunting, the dish became replaced with ‘mock turtle’ soup. However, New Orleans remains one of the only pockets where you can still try turtle meat – as long as it isn’t from a turtle on the endangered list. Rather than green turtle (which was traditionally preferred), terrapin is much more commonly used.
Turtle meat has a pork-like flavor and texture similar to chicken or crab. It is said to be pretty nice on the taste buds, so turtle soup may well be on the cards if you feel like a challenge. Turtle meat is usually parboiled and then added to the soup. It is a delicacy, so don’t rule it out when visiting New Orleans.
What are pralines? Only the signature sweet of New Orleans. This piece of confectionary is a pecan-based, brown sugar-covered candy. Likened by many as a nuttier version of fudge, it is a definite must-try when visiting New Orleans. And if you are reading this for home recipe inspiration, it is worth buying some online to try if you don’t fancy giving the recipe a go.
A praline is made up of a mix of pecans, brown sugar, white sugar, cream, and butter. Rather than overly chewy, they have a slightly creamy texture – which is absolutely melt-in-you-mouth, trust us. The sweet treat was introduced to the city by the French in around 1727. Some suggest that pralines were specifically bought over by Ursuline nuns, although this is unconfirmed either way.
Pralines are sugary and nutty tasting. Nothing you wouldn’t expect. You cook pralines by reducing the sugar over medium heat into a golden caramel, mixing it with the other ingredients, and then leaving the pralines to harden. The New Orleans praline is a must-try food; luckily, that should be easy to tick off because you’ll find praline everywhere.
10. Bananas Foster
Get ready for another delicious dessert. Bananas foster is one of the most popular (and sweet) New Orleans foods. The dish is a hurricane concoction of vanilla ice cream, butter, brown sugar, dark rum, banana liqueur, and actual bananas. The bananas are cooked and served with vanilla ice cream on the side and a drizzling of super sweet, mildly alcoholic sauce. Voila – bananas foster.
Bananas foster gets its name from Richard Foster. Richard Foster was a chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission. He was much appreciated by the residents and business owners of the French Quarter as he tackled crime and improved life quality. In recognition of his efforts, Chef Paul dedicated a new dish (bananas foster) to him in 1951. The dessert has lived on since.
Because of its history, the best place to try a bananas foster is in the French Quarter. If you are visiting New Orleans, plan to sample the best banana fosters in this region. And if you want to experience some of the darker histories of the city, the history that Richard Foster helped move firmly into the past, then head on a New Orleans horror tour.
11. Barbecue Shrimp
Barbecued shrimp isn’t just an Australian thing; barbecue shrimp is a New Orleans specialty. Of course, there is just one significant difference, in New Orleans, ‘barbecue shrimp’ refers to the sauce used to cook the shrimp, not the actual grilling process. You’ll find the shrimp coated in a yummy smoky sauce.
The unofficial story of the birth of New Orleans’ barbecue shrimp is that the recipe was invented in Pascal’s Malae restaurant in the 1950s. A customer is said to have come in and told the chef about a specific type of shrimp they’d tried in Chicago. Not to be outdone, the chef whipped up a similar dish for him – which the customer proclaimed was even better. And so, barbecue shrimp was born.
You’ll find barbecued shrimp of all varieties, including BBQ shrimp po boy. Gulf shrimp is usually the meat of choice and are found all around the coast of the US and Mexico. The best-barbecued shrimp uses fresh gulf shrimp, so keep an eye out for the freshest deal.
12. Red beans and rice
Red beans and rice may sound basic, but this dish is to die for. This dish is one of New Orleans’ creole dishes and is ultra-traditional – even though it is mainly eaten on Mondays. This tradition comes from Mondays being typically laundry days, and beans could be left to simmer relatively unattended. Often ham bone uneaten from Sunday dinner was also used in the dish as leftovers. The beans are served alongside rice and mixed with vegetables like bell peppers, onion, and celery. Spices like thyme, cayenne pepper, and bay leaf also give the dish a kick.
The food dates back to the 19th century and was most common amongst large families with lots of leftovers and mouths to feed. It is believed that the meal was influenced by Spanish Caribbean migration. However, it’s unclear exactly how much of the recipe should be credited to the Spanish Caribbeans or New Orleans of the time.
The dish has an earthy, slightly sweet quality, balanced by the salty meat of the ham. Red beans remind many of sweet potatoes in taste; the texture is smooth since the beans are mashed into a paste. The cooking process is simple, with the rice boiled and the ham only reheated. The beans are left to simmer for a prolonged period, sometimes up to 2.5 hours. The result is a really thickened and creamy texture.
You may find red beans and rice at certain restaurants in New Orleans. However, the dish is much more of a home-cooked meal. We suggest researching restaurants in advance or trying to recreate them yourself.
13. King Cake
Let’s first just establish that king cake is an absolute masterpiece. The cake is specially cooked for Mardi Gras and comes covered in the three colors of the festival – yellow, green, and purple. If you are visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras, it would be a crime not to try a slice or two of king cake. The cake is a unique but tasty mixture of coffee cake and a cinnamon roll, and it comes served in a colossal doughnut shape. Of course, the crucial part of the dessert is the tiny plastic baby hidden in the mixture. Traditionally, the person who finds the baby in their slice has to bring the king cake for the following year.
The history of the king cake comes from the Biblical story of the gifts from the three kings to baby Jesus. Unsurprisingly, the dessert is believed to originate from Christian and predominantly Catholic countries. Many eat the cake as part of the Epiphany celebrations. New Orleans chooses it as a staple dish of Mardi Gras.
The cake is sweet and colorful to look at. The flavors of coffee and cinnamon stand out, as does the topping (usually icing sugar). King cake tears easily and has a cinnamon roll consistency but remains light and fluffy in texture. The cake is baked in the oven using ingredients like eggs, sugar, and flour. The ring shape is essential as it symbolizes the king’s crown, so a special baking tray is typically used.
14. Chicory Coffee
Chicory coffee is one of the most fascinating coffee alternatives on the market. The beans are ground from chicory root, not coffee beans, and are praised for their lower levels of caffeine and high amounts of insulin. Chicory coffee is even becoming a point of research for gut health as a prebiotic.
Chicory coffee is said by many to originate in France during an 1800s coffee shortage. However, the coffee alternative took a steep rise in popularity in New Orleans a little later, in the Civil War and during Union naval blockades. While nowhere near as popular as standard coffee, chicory coffee is still drifting around in New Orleans. If you feel like trying something new, it’s definitely worth a go.
While chicory root is bitter, the preparation of chicory coffee dispels that completely. The root is ground and roasted at high temperatures to achieve the perfect taste. The final result is an intense nutty flavor. It is famous for a good reason, so if you are on the fence, we suggest giving it a go. Who knows, maybe it will be your new signature drink? And if not, it is certainly one for your bucket list.
15. Bread Pudding
Bread pudding is a super sweet classic and absolutely beloved New Orleans food. This is one of the tastiest dishes to eat in New Orleans, and while it is popular in the US, it is somewhat of a global dessert. Bread pudding consists of (originally stale) bread, milk, cream, eggs, and a sauce. It is an absolute guilty pleasure, and if you’ve never tried it before, prepare to fall head over heels for this food.
The bread pudding was initially created as a way to avoid wasting stale bread. The dish dates back to the 11th century and used the soaking cooking method to combat the dry, hardened texture of the bread. As you may have guessed, it was popular amongst the lower classes looking to save a few pennies creatively. However, the love affair for bread pudding quickly spread; nowadays, everyone loves a serving.
Bread pudding has a super sweet taste and is soaked overnight in eggs, sugar, and milk before baking. As an extra touch, some people even add dashes of bourbon or raisins and spices for an added kick. The dessert is light, fluffy, and perfect for those with sweet teeth. You’ll be able to find it in restaurants across New Orleans. However, it is a great recipe to master at home, too -super straightforward.
16. Andouille Sausage
Andouille sausages are a French food; just a large, smoked pork sausage. Visually, Andouille sausages look pretty similar to chorizo sausages. However, Andouille is much bolder in flavor and uses chopped or sliced meat instead of minced meat. It is typically used as an ingredient in Cajun dishes like gumbo rather than a standalone meal. However, it is such an iconic part of New Orleans cuisine that we had to include it on our list.
Where Andouille sausages come from is a bit of a mystery – despite the dish’s French label. Some people query the French claim of this dish and suggest that it has German origins instead. Others reassert that it is indeed French and indicate that it was created to stop wasting meat by butchers in Brittany and Normandy. Either way, it was introduced to New Orleans by European influences.
Andouille sausages are well-seasoned and have a distinctive smoky flavor. You will find them most easily by visiting a butcher or trying a local dish like gumbo which has them as a main ingredient. If you are brave, you could try to make them yourself, although that isn’t a mission for the faint-hearted.
Louisiana cuisine is spectacular, but New Orleans really takes the biscuit. The ‘Crescent City’ (named after the sharp bend of the Mississippi River) is famed for its cuisine. The city has many dishes to try, from the Jackson Square French-style doughnuts to fried oysters and turtle soup. New Orleans food is a dream for foodies and those who love bold tastes and new dishes. And if you can recreate some of these New Orleans dishes at home, you will surely become the most popular host in your neighborhood.
If you are looking for extra New Orleans inspiration, don’t worry; we’ve got lots more up our sleeves. Check out our guide on where to stay in New Orleans, or take a tour of the beautiful garden district if you’ve already decided. There’s so much to experience in New Orleans – you are in for a real treat.
1 thought on “New Orleans Food: 16 Traditional Dishes to Try in NOLA or at Home”
I love me a Po’ Boy. This post has given me all the amazing ideas to make New Orleans food at home. I’ve visited in 2018 but didn’t have to chance to revisit yet, but I’m sure I’ll be back!