My Must Have Kitchen Ingredient – Tony Chachere’s

What’s the one item in your kitchen you can’t possibly cook without? A spice, your grandma’s measuring cup, instant ramen — what’s your magic ingredient, and why?

When I moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1992, I was introduced to this magical seasoning  “Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning” by my various authentic Louisiana born friends. We used it on everything – fries, meat, rice, veggies, etc. They swore it was as authentic as their own mother’s secret ingredients. It was addictive (salt, anyone?) and zesty, but not *too* spicy.

Toward the end of the month when times were lean for a grad student living on a stipend, I would make a big pot of rice and eat it with butter and Tony’s. Just to be clear – it is called Tony Chachere’s Seasoning which I shorten to Tony’s.

When I left Louisiana, I ordered it by mail. By the time I moved back to Pittsburgh in 1998, I could sometimes find it in Giant Eagle and now it is regularly stocked by most stores that have a Cajun or Creole ethnic food section. I hooked my parents on it and now I’ve hooked Ledcat – she probably has no idea that I put it into almost everything I prepare, regardless of cuisine type.I add it to the homemade chicken noodle soup, I add it to every casserole. If the recipe calls for salt, I add Tony’s and skip the salt. It has just enough kick to make things zesty, but not overwhelming.

Pittsburgh cooking with Tony Chachere's ...
Pittsburgh cooking with Tony Chachere’s …

While the seasoning is labeled “Creole” I am not a fan of Creole food (mostly because of the tomato) but lean toward Cajun food. The difference?

So if you’re versed on Louisiana history and culture, then all you really need to know is that Creole cuisine uses tomatoes and proper Cajun food does not. You can stop reading now. That’s how you tell a Cajun vs. Creole gumbo or jambalaya. You’re welcome (to be fair, some Cajun food, such as a sauce piquant, does include tomatoes as a key ingredient). However, if you’d like to know more, please continue reading so that you can learn why the terms “Cajun” and “Creole” that have become used so loosely and interchangeably when describing Louisiana food, are not at all the same.  

A vastly simplified way to describe the two cuisines is to deem Creole cuisine as “city food” while Cajun cuisine is often referred to as “country food.” While many of the ingredients in Cajun and Creole dishes are similar, the real difference between the two styles is the people behind these famous cuisines.

To me, the distinction has been Cajun food tasting zesty and satisfying – I love a good Cajun gumbo. I used to make it with catfish and dark meat chicken (remember, grad student budget) and it was terrific. After a medication side effect obliterated my desire for tomato flavor, I was put off by most so-called Creole or Cajun restaurants – either too tomato-eey or too off the wall spicy, not at all like the food I experienced when I lived there for three years.

Here in Pittsburgh, the best gumbo I’ve found is served at Bistro-to-Go on Pittsburgh’s Northside (usually served on Fridays) and some of the main dishes at Legends of the North Shore  – although, I usually ask for grilled chicken/salmon because their Cajun version is a bit overwhelming. I haven’t tried NOLA on the Square in Market Square because it is a bit out of my price range. I’ve found that “out of my price range” also means “unwilling to tone down the spice” so I’m wary – I suspect it is more Creole than Cajun. I can’t bring myself to spend that much money to try it.

If you like some spice, try Tony’s. They have a low-sodium version that I dislike but I don’t have issues with sodium so I can afford to dislike it.

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