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New Orleans Dining

New Orleans is a gourmand's dream. The food, commonly defined as Creole, is a spicy, substantial - and usually very fattening - blend of French, Spanish, African and Caribbean cuisine, mixed up with a host of other influences including Native American, Italian and German. It tends to be rich, and fragrant, using heaps of herbs, peppers, garlic and onion. Some of the simpler dishes, like red beans and rice, reveal a strong West Indies influence, while others are more French, cooked with long-simmered sauces based on a roux (fat and flour heated together) and herby stocks. Many dishes are served étouffé, literally "smothered" in a tasty Creole sauce (a roux with tomato, onion and spices), on a bed of rice. Note that what passes for Cajun food in the city is often a modern hybrid, tasty but not authentic; the "blackened" dishes, for example, slathered in butter and spices, that were made famous by chef Paul Prudhomme in the 1980s.

The mainstays of most menus are gumbo - a thick soup of seafood, chicken and vegetables (gumbo comes from the Bantu for okra, a prime ingredient) - and jambalaya, a paella jumbled together from the same ingredients. Other specialties include po-boys, French-bread sandwiches crammed with oysters, shrimp or almost anything else, along with spicy sauces or gravy, and muffulettas, the Italian version, stuffed full of aromatic meats and cheese and dripping with olive and garlic dressing. Seafood is abundant and can be very cheap. Along with shrimp and soft-shell crabs, you'll get famously good oysters; they're in season from September to April. Crawfish, or mudbugs (which resemble langoustines and are best between March and October), are served in everything from omelets to bisques, or simply boiled in a spicy stock. To eat them, tug off the overlarge head, pinch the tail and suck out the juicy, very delicious flesh.

Finally, European-influenced New Orleans has always been the American city for coffee; drunk in copious amounts, fresh, strong and aromatic, and often laced with chicory, it's been a big part of life here since long before Seattle got trendy, and locals drink twice the national average.