Holiday Dining Diversity

00:00 November 21, 2011
By: Kim Ranjbar
Cafe Degas - Kim Ranjbar

One would naturally expect the holiday tables in New Orleans to be filled with dishes like Fried Turkey, Dirty Rice, Duck & Andouille Gumbo, Cochon de Lait, Shrimp & Crawfish Mirliton Cassarole and of course, a monstrous Stuffed Turducken. After all, these are some of the recipes that our fair city is famous for, but they are also the product of a blend of different cultures, a blend that makes our city so very unique.

Our history tells the story of the founding of La Nouvelle-Orléans by the French, its cessation to Spain and the city's return to French control only to be sold again to the United States in 1803. After that, there was a huge influx of French, Irish, Creoles, Italians, Germans and Africans, who were brought over as slaves, not to mention the Native Americans who were there from the beginning. Less than a year later, the Haitian Revolution sent refugees fleeing into the states, most of which settled right here in New Orleans. More recently, at the end of the Vietnam War in the early 70s, many Vietnamese who were fleeing a Communist regime came to the United States and settled in Louisiana; the majority of them live in and around the Crescent City.

Though New Orleans' history and combination of cultures has culminated in her own, unique cuisine, separate, distinct holiday dishes from each ethnicity are still readily available.

French cuisine, being the most obvious of cultural influences, is quite prevalent (even in it's purest form) all over the city. In fact, we are the only city in the United States that practices the tradition of réveillon where holiday menus feature decadent, signature French ingredients like oysters, foie gras and smoked salmon. Though not a part of the "official" réveillon celebration, Café Degas on Espalanade Avenue in Mid-City offers a distinctly French menu featuring holiday dishes of paté, broiled escargot and duck leg confit with haricots-verts and flageolet bean ragout. The quaint, European-style restaurant is named after French Impressionist painter Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas who in fact visited his family in 1872 that lived in a house (that still stands) just down the street from the cafe.

As is evident throughout the French Quarter, as well as other parts of the city, the Spanish definitely put their indelible mark on New Orleans, including their cuisine. Traditional Spanish holiday dishes consist of roast turkey or lamb and plenty of seafood like shrimp, lobster, crab and even langostinos, the distant cousin of crawfish. Located on the Mississippi River across from the French Market, Restaurant Galvez is named after the first Spanish governor of Louisiana, Bernardo De Galvez, who encouraged settlement in the state by both Spanish and French Acadian immigrants. Though the restaurant offers an array of tapas, Restaurant Galvez also offers a wonderful rack of lamb with rosemary and a delicate shrimp ceviche marinated in tomatoes, red onions, cilantro and fresh lemon and lime juices.

African peoples brought to the states and sold into slavery had an incredible influence on the cuisine of New Orleans, not to mention the entire Southern United States. They brought the knowledge of food staples like rice, okra and sorghum. They enriched and fortified their diet with "cast-off" ingredients like the tops of turnips, beets and dandelions called "greens" and discarded cuts of meat such as oxtail, pig ears and feet. Today, a traditional "soul food" holiday menu includes dishes like collard or turnip greens, roast chicken, corn bread stuffing and sweet potato pie. Though not usually open during the holidays, you can still get these delicious items from restaurants all over town. A local, inexpensive favorite is Two Sisters Kitchen located at 223 North Derbigny St. offering dishes like chitterlings, turkey necks, oxtails and collard greens.

You'd have to have blinders on not to notice the prominence of Italian culture, what with our signature sandwich, the

[Where Y'At Staff/Provided Photo]

muffuletta and extras like "red gravy," otherwise known as tomato sauce. Time-honored holiday dishes in Italy include stuffed pastas like tortellini and ravioli, the bread-like dessert panforte and (of course) sparkling wines like prosecco and spumante. A little more than a year ago, an authentic, Northern Italian restaurant chef/owner Samantha Castagnetti opened on Barracks Street in the French Quarter. Dubbed The Italian Barrel, this tiny, though very popular eatery offers plates of fresh ravioli stuffed with porcinis, truffles and spinach. You can even get a delicious pumpkin-stuffed ravioli sauteed in butter and sage. They also offer a couple different types of prosecco to go with your Italian holiday feast.

Although there is a large German population in New Orleans, it's a bit more difficult to find specifically-German restaurants around town. One more recent incarnation is John Besh's restaurant Lüke. The conventional holiday dishes of gingerbread, schäufele (a corned, smoked ham) and roasted goose are not available at the Besh Franco-German eatery on St. Charles Avenue, but there are some similar dishes that make up for the lack. For example, you could stuff yourself silly on the "Choucroute Garnie Maison," consisting of smoked pork shank, pork belly and a huge link of bratwurst resting on a bed of sauerkraut...a kingly dish befitting any holiday dinner. You could also try the hog's head cheese with house-made pickles or their "jägerschnitzel" - panéed veal cutlets served with handmade "spätzl."

Despite a smattering of Japanese, Chinese and Thai restaurants found in the Crescent City, the largest Asian population is, strangely enough, Vietnamese. It seems the humid, subtropical climate is what drew many Vietnamese migrants to Southern Louisiana in the 70s, being so similar to the climate in Vietnam. Many immigrants felt at home amidst the humidity and nearby Gulf waters where well-honed fishing and shrimping skills became very useful to the local economy. The customary, Catholic-French holiday dishes in Vietnam often consist of roast duck, they more commonly consumed chicken based soups during Christmas. One of the most popular Vietnamese restaurants can be found on the Westbank, across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans. Nestled in a strip mall in Gretna, Pho Tau Bay has been drawing crowds to its delicious, authentic cuisine. Aside from some fantastic "cha gio" (egg rolls) and "pho bo" (beef noodle soup), you can celebrate the holidays Vietnamese-style with an extra-large bowl of "pho ga" (chicken noodle soup) that will warm you both inside and out.

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