Looks can be deceiving.

Take the case of dirty rice, the lumpy, scruffy one-pot dish eaten throughout Cajun country–and beyond–as a side or, occasionally, a main course.

“The dirty part comes from the livers, hearts, and gizzards that are ground up, seared into the pan, and then baked with white rice,” says Donald Link, a James Beard Award-winning local chef who was raised on his family’s farm.

The long-grain rice is farmed in or foraged from the bayous, lakes, and marshes of southern Louisiana. Cooks mix into the rice a sautéed medley of onion, celery, and bell pepper—the “holy trinity” of Louisiana seasoning.

Inside Mother's Restaurant (Photograph by Spokenhope, Flickr)

Inside Mother’s Restaurant (Photograph by Spokenhope, Flickr)

“Cajuns eat rice with just about every meal,” says Link. A casserole of dirty rice turns up at most family events, and no two recipes are the same.

Some cooks add extra heat with a dash of homemade hot sauce, while others add vegetables. Link recalls that there were eight different versions of the dish at one family reunion he attended.

If you can’t score an invite to a potluck for the down-home version, head to Mother’s Restaurant in New Orleans. This beloved redbrick, cafeteria-style eatery has been cooking Cajun since 1938. Dirty rice is dished up on Saturdays only, and served à la carte or as a side with fried chicken.

Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who got his start in New Orleans, kicks it up a notch with crispy pork cheek and scallions at Delmonico restaurant in the Lower Garden District.

And, for a gourmet twist, reserve a spot at Herbsaint on historic St. Charles Avenue. Order the Muscovy duck confit with dirty rice accented with a zesty citrus “gastrique.” It’s been a menu fixture for 13 years.

This piece, written by Gigi Ragland, appeared in the November 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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