© 2007, Andrew Sigal
Jambalaya By Any Other Name
Cajun and Creole food exploded into the American culinary consciousness in the mid-1980’s after Chef Paul Prudhomme awakened a generation’s taste buds with his instant classic, “Blackened Redfish.” Soon restaurants serving these cuisines began popping up across the country and around the globe. Even more widespread, Cajun-style dishes were added to the menus of otherwise pedestrian restaurants and chain-eateries. A wealth of cookbooks followed. Recipes such as gumbo, crawfish étouffée, jambalaya, and red beans with rice became indelibly stamped onto the dining landscape, along with the “blackening” of virtually any foodstuff – a takeoff on Chef Paul’s seminal recipe.
this sudden awareness of the exciting foods of
One such dish that continues to confound the historian is jambalaya. I first ran into the mystery of its origin while researching the history of the Acadians and the evolution of Cajun cuisine. Though jambalaya was not central to my thesis, I found myself captured by the quest and intrigued by the myriad stories that I found. Eventually I concluded that I had to get back to the main point of my work, leaving my curiosity about this dish unquenched. Recently the essay “Who Saved Jambalaya” (PPC #80) was brought to my attention, re-whetting my interest in the subject.
Cookbook writers often state that “jambalaya” comes from the French jambon (“ham”,) and an African word for rice, given variously as “ya,” “aya” or “yaya”. This is also the story told by modern New Orleanians. It has proven impossible to verify this derivation. Sources fail to mention from which of hundreds of African languages these words are supposed to come. While “ya” is the word for sorghum in Mambili and Grusi-Lyela, not one of “ya,” “aya,” nor “yaya” have appeared as words for “rice” in my survey of major African languages. Furthermore, the various African words that do mean “rice” do not resemble any of these sounds. I am unable to prove a negative, so this theory cannot be finally discarded, but it seems to be legend, not fact.
William A. Read, Ph.D., professor of English Language and Literature at
and I believe more plausible, suggestion is proposed by Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food, “[jambalaya]…
probably came from the period of Spanish rule in
My biggest problem with both of these proposals is the emphasis on ham as a source for the name. Reviewing recipes dated from 1849 to the present shows that while ham is usually an ingredient, a great many recipes leave it out, and there are certainly versions of paella and pilau that include ham but are not called “jambalaya.” More importantly, while ham and pork products add a delicious element to jambalaya, they are hardly the dish’s defining feature. It is difficult to imagine a cook of the past naming a rice dish after the incidental inclusion of ham. Furthermore, following the model of most French and Spanish recipe names, were a novel pilau or paella with ham created, it would have likely been named “pilau au jambon”, or “paella con jamón”, not “jambon pilau” or “jamón paella.”
While culinary writers have one set of ideas, lexicographers seem to have another. The Oxford English Dictionary traces “jambalaya” to Provençal. Jambalaia (note the “i” instead of “y”,) jabalaia, and jambaraia appear in Lou Tresor dou Felibrige ou Dictionnaire Provençal-Français by Frédéric Mistral, a French-Provençal dictionary published in 1878.
JAMBALAIA, JABALAIA, JAMBARAIA (mot arabe), s. m. Ragoût de riz avec une volaille, macédoine, méli-mélo, cohue, v. mescladisso, pelau.
Aquéu jambalaia me remete en memèri
Ço qu’arribèt à-n-uno viélo serp.
Éro un jambaraia de facho de cenobre.
F. CHAILAN. 
Which translates as:
JAMBALAIA, JABALAIA, JAMBARAIA (Arab word), noun masculine. Stew of rice with fowl, mixed vegetables, mish-mash, rabble, see melange, pilau.
This rabble reminds me
Of the arrival of an old snake,
It was a mish-mash of red inebriated faces.
Unfortunately, Mistral did not give the dates of his sources, nor where they were printed. With considerable difficulty I was able to track them down and get them translated.
The first is from a poem by Louis
Charles Felix Peise (b.
Excerpt from La Testo et la Coua de la Serp:
Mathiou me dis: — es un descaladaire!
Jacque me dis: — es eou qu’a tout sauva;
Mai tout aco s’acouardo gaire,
Entantou cadun saup coumo la barquo va.
Aqueou jambalaia me remette en memori
Ce qu’arribet à uno vieilho ser,
Quand sa coua vouguet ave l’er
De passar per davant. Veici touto l’histori:
La coua disie per sa resoun:
— L’a ben troou long-temps qu’aco duro!
Mathew said to me: He is a rioter!
James said to me: He was our safeguard;
But all that does not agree,
However each of us knows how the boat is going.
This rabble [jambalaia] reminds me
Of the arrival of an old snake,
When its tail wanted the air
To pass in front. Here’s the story;
The tail gave as argument
-- It had been there for too long!
Excerpt from Lou Gangui – Contes, Anecdotos et Facétios en Vers Prouvençaoux:
A l’estanci plus haou fasien chavararin,
Aqui l’avié de toute de riche et mesquin:
Ero un jambaraya de fachos de cenobre*;
Coumo la chicarié qu’aven oou mes d’ooutobre,
Touto sorto d’oousseou li fasié son jargoun
(*) Figures rouges, avinées
The upstairs neighbors were making a din
All kinds of people, rich and poor:
It was a mish-mash [jambaraya] of red inebriated faces*;
As in the song birds that we have in October,
All kinds of birds were singing
(*) Red faces, inebriated
It was exciting to see these full texts and discover that neither example used the word in a culinary sense. In both cases it indicates a mish-mash, rabble or mixture. One wonders then about Mistral’s calling it out as rice dish. As one of the premier Provençal scholars of his day, one can hardly dispute his knowledge of the meaning of a word. Yet he failed to produce a reference to either a recipe or other gastronomic usage.
did Mistral get the idea that “jambalaia”
in Provençal was a food? Is it possible that the recipe was created in
has to wonder where Mistral got the idea that the word was of Arabic origin. Charles
Perry, noted scholar of Arab cuisine, considered the issue for me and concluded
that there is no viable source for “jambalaia”
in Arabic. He suggests that Mistral was probably guessing.
Considering the size of the dictionary (two volumes of 1200 pages each,) one
can certainly forgive the occasional error. Perhaps Mistral knew that jambalaia was a type of pilau and that pilau
Mistral also defines a word “jambineto”:
JAMBINETO, s. f. Sorte d’étuvée, de fricassée, faite avec des oisillons.
Dei paire leis enfant farien de jambineto.
JAMBINETO, noun feminine. A type of étouffée, fricassee, made with birds.
The father of the children made the jambineto.
This same word appears in an even earlier Provençal dictionary, Dictionnaire de la Provence et du Comté-Venaissin, published in 1785:
JAMBINETTO, s. f. Pronon. long. Fricassée, ragoût, sort d’étouvée faite avec de petits oiseaux pris au nid, & cuits dans un pot avec du lard.
JAMBINETTO, noun. Feminine. Second to the last syllable pronounced long. Fricassee, ragout, type of étouffée made with small birds taken from their nest, & cooked in a pot with pork belly.
What is this bird fricassee? I am unable to find a recipe for it, nor any other reference to this word in any source. Clearly from the dictionaries’ descriptions this is not jambalaya. However, it is another Provençal dish with a “jamb-” name, but only a minor relationship to ham. It is possible that jambinetto is the ancestor of “jambonette”, a French dish of smothered chicken leg and thigh which is undoubtedly named for “small leg,” not ham.
the uses of the word in the English speaking world? The
jambalaya Also jambalayah, jambolaya. [
A dish composed of rice together with shrimps, chicken, turkey, etc. Also fig.
1872 New Orleans Times 28 June, Those who brought victuals, such as gumbo, jambalaya, etc., all began eating and drinking. 1905 ‘O. Henry’ in Munsey's Mag. July 467/2 Terrapines,…jambolaya, and canvas-covered ducks. 1916 Dialect Notes IV. 269 The show was a regular jambalaya of stunts. 1949 B. A. Botkin Treas. S. Folklore iv. i. 552 Louisianians [grow lyrical] over the superiorities of the Cajun and Creole cuisine—gombo, jambalaya, bouillabaisse. 1961 Listener 14 Dec. 1050/2 Jambalaya…is based on a creole mixture of ham chunks, prawns, and rice, highly flavoured and simmered in chicken stock. 1973 L. Hellman Pentimento (1974) 78 The dinner was wonderful: jambalaya, racoon stew, and wild duck.
Here too the word refers to both the dish and a figurative use as “mish-mash” or “mixture.”
it turns out that the OED missed a printed reference 23 years older than its
earliest source. In the May 1849 issue of American
Agriculturist there was published a recipe entitled “Hopping Johnny (jambalaya),” submitted by Solon Robinson while in
Johnny (jambalaya).—Take a dressed chicken, or
full-grown fowl, if not old, and cut all the flesh into small pieces, with a
sharp knife. Put this into an iron pot, with a large spoonful of butter and one
onion chopped fine; steep and stir it till it is brown; then add water enough
to cover it, and put in some parsley, spices, and red pepper pods, chopped
fine, and let it boil till you think it is barely done, taking care to stir it
often, so as not to burn it; then stir in as much rice, when cooked, as will
absorb all the water; which will be one pint of rice to two of water; stir and
boil it a minute or so, and then let it stand and simmer until the rice is
cooked, and you will have a most delicious dish of palatable, digestible food.
It is strange that the author titled the recipe “Hopping Johnny (jambalaya).” This is clearly jambalaya and not a “Hopping John”, which would be made of rice with peas, chickpeas or beans.
I find it interesting that the use in the American Agriculturist as a culinary term postdates the non-culinary use found in
I was discussing the problem with a colleague recently when the word “jumble” was mentioned. She suggested to me that it was “absurd” to think that “jumble” could be in any way related to “jambalaya.” On reflection I have concluded that it is a possibility must be considered. The mere fact that the words sound similar is certainly insufficient grounds for relatedness. However, given that the figurative use of “jambalaia” in Provençal means the same thing as “jumble” in English, it becomes much harder to ignore a possible connection.
The Oxford English Dictionary says of “jumble” that it is “…Known only from the 16th c., and without cognate words. Prob. onomatopœic: cf. bumble, fumble, mumble, rumble, stumble, tumble.” In other words, they don’t know its origin. Since there has been significant trade, royal intermarriage, and conflict between England, France and Spain throughout the ages, it is in no way inconceivable that the word “jumble” travelled south from England with plenty of time to be turned into “jambalaia” by the early 19th century. Or, perhaps “jumble” and “jambalaia” are cognates, sharing some common, now lost, source.
Meanwhile, since jambon/jamón is in no way the defining element of jambalaya, couldn’t “jambalaia” as a dish easily be a “jumbled paella” or a “jumbled pilau.” In fact, being a mixture of rice, meats, and vegetables, a Provençal chef, cook, or homemaker could have used the name “jambalaia” on the word’s own merits without the necessity for reference to an earlier rice dish.
As for recipes published in cookbooks, the earliest I have found appeared in What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881):
Jumberlie--A Creole Dish.
Take one chicken and cut it up, separating every joint, and adding to it one pint of cleanly-washed rice. Take about half a dozen large tomatoes, scalding them well and taking the skins off with a knife. Cut them in small pieces and put them with the chicken in a pot or large porcelain saucepan. Then cut in small pieces two large pieces of sweet ham and add to the rest, seasoning high with pepper and salt. It will cook in twenty-five minutes. Do not put any water on it.
a surprising recipe in many ways. First, its author was not from
Fisher’s relocations and the odd nature of the recipe, it is hard to say where
it might have originated. It may be significant that Solon Robinson’s 1849
recipe was said to have come from
recipe to be found in a
Jambalaya of fowls and rice.
Cut up and stew a fowl; when half done, add a cup of raw rice, a slice of ham minced, and pepper and salt; let all cook together until the rice swells and absorbs all the gravy of the stewed chicken, but it must not be allowed to get hard or dry. Serve in a deep dish. Southern children are very fond of this; it is said to be an Indian dish, and very wholesome as well as palatable; it can be made with many things. 
His suggestion that jambalaya came from the Native Americans is probably a mistake. It is possible that he got this impression from jambalaya-like dishes made with hominy instead of rice. In her 1930 master’s thesis, Some Things That Belong to the Early Days of Lafayette Parish, Ann Spotswood Buchanan complains that published cookbooks were full of errors, stating that “Creole cook books, arranged to meet present day needs do not tell the whole story of Creole and Acadian cooking. They do not… [indicate] that la sagamité, not rice, was used in jambalaya.” If some New Orleans Creole families made jambalaya with sagamité, a type of Native American hominy, that could explain Hearn’s belief that his rice based jambalaya derived from a Native American creation.
He was not alone in this notion. In 1875 the New-Orleans Times published an article where the author makes a rather extraordinary claim for the Native American roots of jambalaya:
We have seen
it spelled in French jumbliade; but the dish is of Indian origin; nearly
all of the old travelers describe it. It was originally made of zizania
aquatica, or wild rice, one of the native cereals of
However, what is described here is a Hopping John, not a jambalaya, since it is a rice and bean dish.
Recipes for jambalaya continued to appear in every Cajun and Creole cookbook published, from The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook (1901), through community cookbooks too numerous to list, Paul Prudhomme’s books that helped to popularize Cajun food in the 1980’s, and on to the present day. It has simply become one of the main dishes of the Cajun/Creole cannon.
which nails down the root of either the word or the food. From where could it have
come? There are several possibilities, some more likely than others. Either the
word and the dish evolved together, or separately. The recipe might have been
created or named in Europe, Africa, or
jambalaya started in
it seems unlikely to me that jambalaya was named in the Americas. The migration
of peoples was primarily from the old world to the new. Furthermore, printed
recipes in cookbooks did not exist in
suppose that jambalaya was created and named in
We begin with the Cajuns and the long held belief that jambalaya is their dish. How would they have brought it to their new homeland?
of the Louisiana Cajuns were French émigrés who arrived in “Acadiana” (northeastern
possibility is hinted at by Karen Hess in The
group of Acadians made it back to
another group of Acadians were deposited on the French
Eustis in Cooking in old Créole Days: La
Cuisine Créole à l'Usage des Petits Ménages (1904), gives a recipe for “Jumballaya
a la Creole” including a cryptic note that “The St. Domingo Congris is like the
Hopping John.” This comment is all the
more confusing because she gives no recipe for “St. Domingo Congris” (which is
presumably a red beans with rice dish,) and makes no mention of either congris or jambalaya in the Hopping John
recipe that she does provide. Nonetheless, this does imply that she saw a connection
between Jambalaya and
it is Spanish Creole. The French
what about the French Creoles living in and around
implications from cookbooks are telling. Printed recipes for pilau in
groups have made their home in and around
jambalaya was born in Europe and then carried to
as Karen Hess eloquently pointed out,
of this jambalaya about the origin of jambalaya? Is it French, Spanish,
African, American, or American Indian? Though I am convinced that the word
on where any individual learned the recipe, they would have different folk
stories to support their idea of its origins. Spanish Creoles would tell you
that it was a take on paella, using tomatoes to color the rice instead of
saffron. African’s, and those who had African cooks, would point to the long
history of rice cultivation on the West African coast and invoke a tale of
“yaya” being rice. American Indians undoubtedly would speak of jambalaya-like
dishes with either wild rice or hominy. French Creole’s from the midi would confidently
report that their jambalaia traveled
with them from
When any of these groups came together around a cook pot, they would have recognized a common way of putting together rice, meats, and vegetables, regardless of the name. So too, they would likely have puffed out their chests claiming the original version as their own, proudly telling their folk history as proof.
A. B. & Allen, R. L., eds. The American
Agriculturist, Vol 8, Number 5, May 1849.
Robert W. “Solving a Culinary History Mystery; Tracing Abby Fisher’s Roots to
Bultman, Bethany Ewald. “Who Saved Jambalaya.” Petits Propos Culinaires #80 (2006): 79-91.
H. M., et. als. 1994. The Useful Plants
of West Tropical
Alan. 1999. The
Célestine. 1904. Cooking in old Créole Days.
La Cuisine Créole à l'Usage des Petits Ménages.
Peter S. 1971. American Cooking: Creole
Fisher, Abby. 1881. What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. San Francisco: Women’s Co-operative Printing Office.
John D. 1990. The Evolution of Cajun and
Lafcadio.  1990. Lafcadio Hearn’s
Creole Cook Book : with the addition of a collection of drawings and writings
by Lafcadio Hearn during his sojourn in
Karen.  1998. The
Guidry. 1986. French
and Acadian influences upon the Cajun cuisine of
Frédéric.  1979. Lou Tresor Dóu Felibrige ou Dictionnaire
Provençal-Français, Volume 2.
The New-Orleans Times. 7/4/1875.
The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition. 1991.
The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, 2nd edition. 
Paul. 1984. Chef Paul Prudhomme’s
1987. The Prudhomme Family Cookbook:
William A., Ph. D. 1931.
William Faulkner. 1979. The Cajuns: from
Société de Gens de Lettres. 1785. Dictionnaire de la Provence et du Comté-Venaissin, Tome Second. Marseille: Jean Mossy, Père & Fils.
Terry. 1986. Cajun-Creole Cooking.
Wikipedia.com. Frédéric Mistral. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric_Mistral. Accessed 6/10/2007.
Wikipedia.com. Third Treaty of Ildefonso. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Treaty_of_San_Ildefonso. Accessed 6/10/2007.
 There are some African languages in which “ay”, and “yaya” are words for certain grasses. “Ay” in the Wolof language refers to Echinochloa Pyramidalis, a weed grass that infests cultivated areas. “Yaya” in Kissi is another weed and pasture grass, Digitaria Horizontalis. Similar words such as “yayanga,” “yayángán,” and “yayagol” refer to other weed and fodder grasses in a variety of languages. Finally, “ya” in Mambila, and “yā” or “yala” in Grusi-Lyela refer to the grain sorghum, sorghum bicolor (Burkhill, 1994. Vol II:224, 228, 235, 245, 248-254, 348-355, 632-633.) Though no one would confuse sorghum for rice, they are both edible grains. Thus, it is possible that through miscommunication between Louisianans and African slaves, the idea could have been started that “ya” meant “rice.”
 Read, 123.
 Davidson, 122.
 Among them Karen Hess in The Carolina Rice Kitchen, Peter S. Feibleman’s American Cooking: Creole and Acadian, Cajun-Creole Cooking by Terry Thompson, etc.
 For example, note recipes with names such as “riz aux courges,” “pilau de cailles,” and “arroz con pollo.”
 Mistral quotes Chailan with the word spelled “jambaraia.” However, in his book Lou Païsan au Tiatre, Chailan uses the spelling “jambalaia”. In Lou Gangui – Contes, Anecdotos et Facétios, he spells it “jambaraya” in an otherwise identical block of text.
 Mistral, 152.
 Translation by Andrew Sigal.
 Translation kindly performed by René Merle, with edits by Andrew Sigal.
 Email conversation with Charles Perry, 5/3/2007.
 Mistral, 152.
 Translation by Andrew Sigal.
 Société de Gens de Lettres, 388.
 Translation by Andrew Sigal.
 American Agriculturist, 161. Thanks go to Barry Popik and his BarryPopik.com web site for bringing to light this previously undiscovered reference.
 Fisher, 57-58.
 Brower, 2007.
 When I first saw this recipe I imagined that it would not work; that there simply wouldn’t be enough liquid. However, on trying it I was surprised to find that not only was there enough, there was too much, requiring me to overcook the rice to dry it to the point of being a jambalaya and not a soup. I am disappointed to report that the result was far from delicious. It basically tasted like dried tomato rice soup with boiled chicken and ham in it. Tolerable, but not great.
 Hearn, 106.
 Buchanan, 27.
 Picayune, 181-182.
 Prudhomme, 1984:216-221 & Prudhomme, 1987:234-238.
 Hess, 18-19.
 As noted, Abby Fisher’s jambalaya recipe may
have originated in
 A remote possibility is
that the recipe for pilau was brought to
 They came predominantly from
 Rushton, 51, 54-57.
 Ibid., 57.
 Eustis, 13.
 Ibid, 14.
 Rushton, 70.
 Wikipedia.com., Third Treaty of San Ildefonso.
 Hess, 71.
 Folse, 7 & Thompson, 6-7.
 Wikipedia.com, Frédéric Mistral.
 Hess, 65.