Étouffée is a Creole dish popular in the American South. It is traditionally made with seafood covered in a dense, rich, very spicy sauce. The étouffée is served over rice, and is intended to be a main course or entree. Many Southern restaurants offer étouffée along with other popular Creole dishes, and it is also possible to make it at home. However, doing so will launch the cook into the debate about which ingredients are contained in true étouffée, also seen spelled as etouffee.
In French, étouffée means smothered, and by tradition the food in an étouffée is indeed smothered in a dense, spicy sauce. The ingredients of that sauce, however, are open to discussion. What most cooks can agree on is that the base of étouffée is seafood, traditionally crayfish, which are also known as crawfish and crawdads. Crayfish are freshwater crustaceans which look remarkably like lobsters, and they are very popular in the American South. Typically, only one kind of seafood is included in an étouffée, rather than a mixture.
Most cooks also concur that the sauce starts with a roux, a thick sauce made from butter and flour. A trio of onions, green peppers, and garlic are fried with the roux, and then they are heavily spiced with ingredients such as cayenne pepper. Some cooks also argue that tomatoes are an integral part of the sauce, while others frown upon the inclusion of tomatoes in an étouffée. If included, the tomatoes may be slowly simmered as part of the base sauce, to make the sauce tomato flavored and slightly reddish, or they may be added closer to the end, for texture.
Seafood like shrimp and crab tend to appear more often in gumbo, which is a type of stew. Unlike gumbo, étouffée is not a liquid stew, although it is heavily sauced. The dish is also unique from jambalaya, another popular dish in the American South which includes seafood, vegetables, and rice, and sometimes meats as well. Jambalaya may be similar, but the ingredients are cooked in one pot, as opposed to étouffée, which is ladled out over cooked rice.
Like many regional dishes, étouffée is made in many different ways, and cooks may argue over small and sometimes crucial differences. The rules for étouffée tend to be a bit more hard and fast than for dishes like gumbo, which is often made from a loose assortment of things pulled together in a stew pot. Recipes for étouffée may or may not include tomato, may eschew the use of a roux altogether, and may have other small variations which make them unique. These differences are part of the magic of regional cuisines.