Smell that? A touch of paprika, thyme, and a hint of garlic, followed by the deeper aromas of seafood and wild game. This is a taste of Cajun cuisine — a culinary tradition deeply connected to Louisiana low country soil, waters, and seasons. It delivers a sensory experience that tells of its rich and textured history with every mouthwatering bite.
Like many cultural aspects of this part of the country, Cajun cuisine is complex and incorporates influences from a range of peoples and practices. But at its heart is the “Holy Trinity,” the unique 1:1:1 combination of onion, bell pepper, and celery that forms a unique flavor base undergirding some of your favorite Cajun dishes: gumbo, red beans and rice, and Jambalaya, to name but a few.
Legend has it that the “Holy Trinity” moniker did not appear until the late 1970s, when Louisiana-native and celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme first coined it. The name not only reflects the foundational nature of the mixture to Cajun cuisine, but nods to the region’s distinct Catholic origins. Not surprisingly then, garlic, when thrown in for good measure, is often referred to as “the Pope.”
Mirepoix and the birth of the Holy Trinity
The Cajun Holy Trinity is a variation of the French mirepoix, a similar base made of one part diced carrots, two parts diced onions, and one part diced celery. This foundational recipe made its way to southwest Louisiana in the pockets of French-descended refugees, driven from Arcadia in Northeast Canada by the British in the wake of the Seven Years’ War. The Acadians settled in southwest Louisiana, at the time under Spanish rule, and adapted their cuisine and cooking practices — including the original mirepoix — to their new home and its local ingredients. “Cajun” is in fact, slang for “Acadian.”
Louisiana low country soil was marshy and not ideal for raising carrots and required finding a local alternative. The bell pepper, easily grown and harvested, was soon found to be a good substitute and voilà — the Holy Trinity was born.
Creating the Holy Trinity
While it may be hard to imagine that yellow or white onion combined with relatively mild, grassy bell pepper and watery celery is a flavor sensation, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. When the three are chopped and cooked in oil, butter, or even lard, the synergy is real. Slowly heating the vegetables on low allows their sweetness to come out, evaporates excess water, and deepens flavors. This is called “sweating” the vegetables, as opposed to frying or sautéing (both of which are done over higher heat). Beware: No browning is allowed.
Once masterfully sweated, the vegetables meld to produce a unique taste all their own and serve as the building blocks to everything from Cajun roux to crawfish étouffée.
To prepare authentic Cajun cuisine at home, start with a solid Holy Trinity recipe, and be patient while the vegetables work their magic. You can find a starter recipe here, and loads of Cajun cuisine favorites here.