For Mardi Gras—February 28—try a new take on food bars (a.k.a. buffets): DIY Jambalaya.
Jambalaya is a delicious, spicy, main course consisting of rice and practically everything else in the refrigerator! It’s a great way to use favorite meats and veggies (shrimp, peas, carrots, bell peppers). You can start from scratch; for a family night, using leftovers is more than acceptable.
Jambalaya is also an economical and easy way to feed a large group—Super Bowl Sunday, Oscar parties, even outdoor fêtes.
But, as a creation of New Orleans, we like it best for Mardi gras.
Jambalaya originated in Louisiana. Creole jambalaya, called red jambalaya by the Cajuns to differentiate it from their take—sprang from the French Quarter of New Orleans, the sector originally inhabited by Europeans.
Jambalaya was an adaptation of paella by the Spaniards, most of whom could not afford saffron (an essential paella ingredient) due to high import costs. Tomatoes were substituted to color and flavor the dish.
French Creoles introduced jambalaya to the Cajuns of southern Louisiana, who rarely used tomatoes (it’s swamp country). Instead, they browned the meat for color and smoky flavor and referred to their recipe as brown jambalaya.
The word “jambalaya” is a combination of the Spanish jamón or the French jambon, meaning ham, and another word; however, what word that is can be controversial.
You may read that the word is “aya, African for rice.” But there are no rice varietals in Africa with names like “yaya,” “aya,” or “ya.” “Ya” in Mambila (the language of Cameroon and Nigeria), and “y?” or “yala” (among the Grusi and Lyela peoples of Burkina Faso) refer to another grain, sorghum.
A better explanation may be the combination of jamón/jambon and paella: It doesn’t take too close a look to notice that jambalaya is an adaptation of paella, using white rice instead of saffron rice. Jam-paella or jamb-paella = jambalaya.
While there are different recipes for each dish, both paella and jambalaya incorporate chicken, ham, sausage and seafood.
Since jambalaya could be made economically in big black cast iron pots for crowds*, it became popular for large events, including church suppers, weddings and political rallies.
The recipe evolved to seafood-only versions, meat-only versions, and vegetarian/vegan recipes. One of the benefits of a jambalaya bar is that each person can customize the dish as he/she wishes.
The easiest way to make the rice is to use Zatarain’s Jambalaya Mix. Alternatively, use plain white rice with cajun seasoning from McCormick, or other brands.
Thanks to Olivia Manning and Zatarain’s for the suggestion!
RECIPE: JAMBALAYA BAR
This recipe makes five dinner-size portions. Multiply it for a larger crowd. Don’t worry about leftovers: leftover Jambalaya is delicious (even cold!).
Ingredients For 5 Servings
Cooked Proteins (Total 1.5 Cups)
Andouille or other smoked sausage, sliced
Chicken, cubed or sliced
Shrimp, peeled and deveined shrimp
For an all-shellfish jambalaya: scallops, mussels, oysters, shrimp
Green bell peppers, cubed or sliced, cooked
Heat: hot sauce, red chile flakes, sliced jalapeños
Onions: sliced cooked onions, raw green onions (scallions)
Red bell peppers, cubed or sliced, cooked
2 cups water
1 package Zatrain’s Jambalaya Mix, Original
1. MIX the water and rice mix in a large saucepan until well blended. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low; cover and simmer for 25 minutes or until most of the water is absorbed and the rice is tender
2. REMOVE from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving and place on a platter or individual serving plates. Bring to the table with the add-ins.
 A pot of Jambalaya, served at the table (here’s the recipe from Gimme Some Oven).  Deconstruct the ingredients for a Jambalaya Bar (photo courtesy Olivia Manning | Zatarain’s).  Zatarain’s Jambalaya Mix.  You can use Cajun seasoning to flavor plain white rice (photo courtesy McCormick).  Yes, please! It’s easy to make a King Cake with the mix kit from King Arthur Flour.