Every part of the United States is known for some special kind of food.
Americans in Maine would say their state is best known for its seafood, especially lobster.
Texas and North and South Carolina argue about which state has the best barbecue.
And the same goes for New Yorkers and people from Chicago when it comes to which city has the best pizza.
But the city with possibly the richest food culture is New Orleans, Louisiana.
New Orleans, also known as the “Big Easy,” is almost 300 years old. It is home to almost 350,000 people and covers about 90,000 hectares. The city has a mix of French, Spanish and Caribbean influences. These influences can be seen in not just the food, but also the music and buildings.
Many people travel to New Orleans every year for any one of the city’s many festivals. They come for wild parties, and rarely leave without a taste for southern cooking.
Restaurant critic Tom Fitzmorris operates a website called The New Orleans Menu. It lists about 1,550 restaurants in the city. So how does one chef separate their food from the food of the others?
Amarys Herndon and her husband Jordan try their best by cooking traditional New Orleans food in a special way: a Vietnamese way.
In 2007, the Herndons moved to the city from Texas to study cooking at Delgado Community College. But for Amarys Herndon, the love for making tasty food started much earlier.
"I always really liked cooking. My mom hated cooking. So as soon as I showed an interest in it, she just let me take over. I have 8 younger brothers and sisters ... Our financial situation was pretty tight. So…one of my tricks was making stuff look really pretty on the plate, so that they’d be excited to eat it even if it was the same thing that we’d had for four meals in a row."
Herndon and her husband worked in famous New Orleans restaurants for several years. They learned how to make the traditional dishes, like gumbo and po’boys.
And then they decided to launch their own eatery. They opened an independent company called The Old Portage, using the cooking areas of other businesses. They kept most of the traditional cooking they learned in restaurants the same.
But Herndon says they saw so many people cooking crawfish in the usual New Orleans way that they knew they had to make a change. They remembered seeing Vietnamese people living in the Houston, Texas, area cook crawfish in their own traditional way. Herndon says she loved the different spices and ingredients.
And so she and her husband started going to a bar called the Black Penny in the city’s historic French Quarter. Now, they prepare a Vietnamese-style “crawfish boil” there several times a month.
New Orleans-style spicy crawfish often comes with corn and boiled potatoes. But the Herndons serve theirs with lemongrass butter and bread from Dong Phuong, a real Vietnamese bakery.
And it has become a great success.
A former employer once told Herndon that, in order to cook food in the style of another culture, one must show that culture respect. Herndon says several Vietnamese are often among the people enjoying her style of crawfish. And that makes her believe she is honoring both New Orleans and Vietnamese culture as best she can.
"There’s a story and a history to almost every dish here. You can see the ties to all the different cultures that have come through, which is one of my favorite things about the city… Because you can see the way all these different cultures have affected New Orleans and our food here."
Nicholas Christian is another person that moved to New Orleans for the food. He works with several local coffee shops and has helped some restaurants choose the different kinds of food they will serve.
He says a crawfish boil is the perfect example of the culture of eating in the Big Easy. Friends and strangers come together at large tables eat to all the food as one group. A meal here is a time when people slow down and pay more attention to what they are doing and who they are with, Christian says.
"Food is a way of life and down here it definitely shows. The amount of high quality food you can get down here for the price is incredible. If you do go to a fine dining restaurant [and] you spend $60 on a steak, it’s going to be one of the best steaks you’ve ever had in your life."
New Orleans has its problems like any other city, Christian says. But he adds that love of food, music and life make it home to anyone that visits.
I’m Pete Musto.
Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Adam Brock shot the video and Pete Musto produced it. George Grow was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Do chefs in your country often combines dishes from different cultures with their own? What city has the best food in your country?
Words in This Story
lobster - n. an ocean animal that has a long body, a hard shell, and a pair of large, sharp, curved parts on the toes, and that is caught for food
barbecue - n. food that has been cooked on a flat metal frame over hot coals or an open fire
pizza - n. a food made from flat, usually round bread that is topped with usually a yellow or white solid food that is made from milk called cheese, as well as a thick liquid made from a round, soft, red fruit called a tomato
chef - n. a professional cook who usually is in charge of a restaurant
gumbo - n. a thick soup made in the southern U.S. with meat or seafood
po’boys - n. two pieces of bread filled with seafood that is served in Louisiana
crawfish - n. an animal that looks like a small lobster and lives in rivers and streams
spice(s) - n. a substance that is used in cooking to add flavor to food and that comes from a dried plant and is usually a powder or seed
ingredient(s) - n. one of the things that are used to make a food or product
potato(es) - n. a round root of a plant that has brown, yellow, or red skin and white or yellow flesh and that is eaten as a vegetable
lemongrass - n. a type of grass that produces an oil that smells like lemon and is widely used in Asian cooking
butter - n. a solid yellow substance made from milk or cream that is spread on food or used in cooking
bakery - n. a place where bread, cakes, cookies, and other baked foods are made or sold
steak - n. a thick, flat piece of meat and especially beef