Relocating a cuisine from its city of origin requires more than being able to finesse recipes. It’s an intricate process of translation. A prawn in Sydney is different to a prawn in Bangkok. A capsicum in Rome is different than in New Orleans. Same for a cut of striploin, shellfish, or quill of cinnamon.
This unique process is one Richard Duff is intimately familiar with. The head chef at NOLA – Sydney’s first and only genuine New Orleans-style restaurant and bar, located at The Streets of Barangaroo – Duff has history with transposing ingredients, including work at the Thai-inspired Mrs Jones in Melbourne and London’s long-running French drawcard, Bibendum.
But it’s New Orleans cooking that has Duff’s heart. “My excitement in cooking this style lies in its adaptability,” says Duff. “New Orleans and Southern Louisiana has always been a great melting pot of cultures. From French, Spanish and Native-American, to West African, German, Irish and Chinese, the region's cooking is an amalgamation of these flavours and tastes."
With such varied source material, it’s small wonder the exact profile of New Orleans cooking is somewhat ephemeral. “It doesn't really have one core element,” says Duff. “The essence of New Orleans cooking is taking whatever you have, and giving it the New Orleans flavour.”
We asked Duff to highlight five key elements of New Orleans cooking and give tips on how to try it at home.
At NOLA, Duff’s interpretation of “the New Orleans flavour” begins with specific tools. Namely, a smoker powered by hickory, applewood and pecan (Duff changes the woods depending on the meat), a wood-burning fire pit, and a dry-aging room.
With much of New Orleans cooking hinging on these smoked qualities, and this kind of equipment not readily available to people at home, Duff says the workaround is buying pre-smoked meat from quality outlets.
“For example, our scallops with smoked summer succotash (a bean and sweet-corn dish) uses Andouille sausages made in-house,” says Duff. The coarse, high-fat peppery sausage is available in Australia but can be hard to find. Duff says a mild chorizo or a double-smoked Polish Kielbasa sausage is a good replacement. “The flavours are all there,” he says. “Lots of garlic, spice, and heat. Then it’s basically a mix of beans, butter, veg stock, fish stock, corn and okra.”
Most delicatessens supply good chorizos. Duff recommends the Rodriguez Bros brand, Victor Churchill, and Havericks, a commercial supplier based in Banksmeadow, which is open to the public every Saturday morning.
Okra (sometimes known as “gumbo pods”) is a key ingredient in West African-influenced cooking. Duff uses it fried in his incendiary Cajun spice mix; as a thickening ingredient in gumbo, and as a standalone side dish. He says it’s readily available from supermarkets, especially at the moment. “It’s in season in Sydney,” he says. “You can get it at almost all Asian supermarkets and I’ve seen it at Coles and Woolies too.” He suggests simply frying it, seasoning with Cajun spices, and serving with a chipotle aioli.
Crayfish vs yabbies
Louisiana is famous for its crayfish dishes, which sounds difficult to accurately recreate in Australia. Not so, says Duff – crayfish is just a different name for our yabby. “We have the same ones they have over there,” says Duff. “It’s a slightly larger version but great eating.”
At NOLA, Duff serves grilled red claw yabbies with maître d' butter, wakame and salad. NOLA’s yabbies are cooked live, straight off the freight from South Australia. For those at home, Duff says they’re also available frozen at the fish markets, but do be aware they’re seasonal.
“They spawn in the summer,” says Duff. “They’re not great then, as they’re just starting to replenish stocks.” Frozen or live, his tip is to consider their weight when purchasing – like any shellfish, a yabby that feels heavy for its size is likely to mean it’s nice and plump inside.
No New Orleans venue is complete without a unique take on gumbo, the traditional Louisiana stew. “There’s probably about 100 different recipes for gumbo,” says Duff. “It’s a mix of anything and everything. You can make vegetable gumbo, meat gumbo, or a meat, fish and chicken mix - as long as the underlying spices like cayenne, paprika, allspice, chilli, garlic, and celery salt are there.” Duff says gumbo’s innate versatility makes it easy to make at home. “It’s personal taste,” he says. “If you want to amp up the spices, just add more Tabasco, cayenne or paprika.”
If there’s one unifying element of New Orleans cuisine, it’s spice. "Most important to Southern Louisianan and New Orleans cooks is the underlying spice of the Cajun and Creole cuisines,” says Duff. “They feature in everything from Lobster Etoufee, gumbos, stews and crayfish broils; to fish, chicken and the alligator synonymous with the bayous and canebrakes of Louisiana."
NOLA buys individual spices in bulk and blends them in-house to custom specifications. But you can get them from almost anywhere – Duff recommends Herbie’s Spices, which sell through the Essential Ingredients retailer in Rozelle. “They do a very good Creole spice mix and a Cajun spice mix,” he says.
As long as these spices carry through the dish, any ingredient in Southern cooking can be replaced with a native or local equivalent – an approach Duff says is quintessentially New Orleans.
This article is presented in partnership with The Streets of Barangaroo.