In broad terms, Creole cooking is city cooking, based on French traditions, but with influences from Spain, Africa, Germany, Italy, the West Indies, etc. Cajun cooking is peasant food, the cooking the Acadians (later Cajuns) developed as they learned to live in the south Louisiana swamps. Creole food is more refined and subtler. Cajun food is pungent and more highly spiced.But over many years, there has been a lot of trading of ideas and styles, and a lot of evolution. Some inland Cajun dishes are probably as different from bayou Cajun dishes as they are from the Creole food served in New Orleans. We have hunted tirelessly to pin down distinctions between the two cuisines’ seasonings, but have come up empty handed. The Creole and Cajun food history page at NewOrleansCooking.com fails to make a meaningful distinction between the two styles, much less the seasonings. Online retailer CajunTreats.com has a huge list of "Cajun Creole Seasonings," some of which have Cajun in the name, some Creole, and others, both.
a practical matter, it appears that any meaningful distinction between Cajun seasoning and Creole seasoning has been lost - the words are used interchangeably or together by marketers trying to create an impression that will tempt you to buy their products and cookbooks and eat in their restaurants.
Since our original response, dozens of readers have written in to tell what Cajun and Creole mean to them. In general, the most passion has come from the Cajun camp, which wants to set the record straight that its cuisine is not inherently hot.Chef John Folse of New Orleans has this to say: “Cajun food is certainly not hot and spicy. Cajun food is well-seasoned, with a wonderful blend of fresh onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic, green onions, and parsley. These seasonings along with the dark brown Cajun roux are the basis of flavor. It was the blackening phenomenon in the late 1970s that gave Cajun food the reputation of being hot and spicy cuisine."
Another reader says that both forms of cooking rely heavily on improvisation and do not necessarily use different ingredients or seasonings - just different amounts. The difference between the two can be very subtle, he say. “Creole cooking has far more tomato-based dishes; for example, a Cajun jambalaya is roux based and a Creole jambalaya is tomato based.” (On the other hand, a Cajun étoufée is tomato based, while a Creole étouffée is roux based.) Go figure.
Our correspondent adds that gumbo differs not only between Creole and Cajun cuisine, but from region to region. A gumbo prepared along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast (Grand Isle) is made with a light or medium roux and is thin almost like a soup. A Creole (New Orleans) gumbo is made with medium to dark roux and often has tomatoes and okra in it. A Cajun (Lafayette) gumbo is made with a dark roux and sometimes has okra in it and may include an egg in its shell floating in the broth. All gumbos are served over rice and contain either a combination of seafood or chicken and sausage.“It is much easier to explain what ingredients Cajun and Creole cuisine share,” our reader says. “Both use rice, flour and oil for roux, crab, shrimp, oysters, crawfish, fish, frog, turtle, pork, beans, tomatoes, okra, yams, and pecans. Seasonings used by both cuisines are: parsley flakes, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and white pepper. Both cuisines and a fusion of the two forms of cuisines can be found in the southern part of Louisiana.”