Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Vietnamese Immigrants Carry on a Cajun Food Tradition

The New York Times

Melissa Pham works at Crawfish Shack Seafood, her family’s restaurant in Atlanta, where boiled potatoes and crayfish have been cooked with Cajun spices and lemon grass, an Asian flavoring.

HIEU PHAM serves about a ton of Louisiana crayfish each week here at the Crawfish Shack Seafood, boiling them in a slurry of commercial seasoning mix, garlic cloves, orange wedges and lemon grass stalks.

Cast nets hang from the acoustical-tile ceiling of the strip-mall restaurant, located behind his father’s auto-repair shop along a multiethnic corridor north of downtown. Cans of Café Du Monde coffee sit by the register, and Louis Armstrong plays in heavy rotation.

His father was raised in Vietnam, his mother in Cambodia. Mr. Pham, born 27 years ago in Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta, calls himself a “real Georgia peach.”

But like an increasing number of Vietnamese restaurateurs across the country, he sells his customers a vision of Louisiana culture, accessorized by heaping bowls of crayfish. (Or, as they are called regionally, crawfish.) At least two other counter-service crayfish cafes in Atlanta are owned by Vietnamese or Cambodian families. Vietnamese-owned crayfish restaurants, built around liberal interpretations of Louisiana, are now suburban fixtures in Texas, California and elsewhere.

When thousands fled Indochina after the end of the Vietnam War, many ended up in Louisiana. Now, for the children of those refugees, the Gulf Coast, fringed by seafood-rich wetlands, can be a kind of second homeland.

Crayfish are not commonly consumed in Vietnam, said Andrea Nguyen, a California author of books on Southeast Asian food, but eating boiled shellfish “is a social activity among Vietnamese people.”

“Crawfish eating is visceral,” she said. “Vietnamese people like to pick at their food, to peel and eat with their fingers.”

In California some crayfish restaurants advertise themselves as quan nhau, or casual restaurants.

In southwestern Louisiana, restaurants that specialize in crayfish are often known as boiling points. Many rural boiling points, which have existed since the 1950s, are rudimentary, with concrete floors and bare wood or laminate tables.

The crayfish, which are cooked in giant pots over propane flames along with potatoes and ears of corn, arrive on plastic or metal trays. Waiters and waitresses tally orders by weight. Beer is the drink of choice. Rolls of paper towels anchor each table.

A similar, but more expansive, ethic applies at the Vietnamese-owned crayfish restaurants that began opening in Houston around 2000, and a few years later in Southern California.

Hank’s Cajun Crawfish, on Bellaire Boulevard on the west side of Houston, in a storefront with tinted windows and glaring neon, is one of a half-dozen or more Vietnamese-owned urban boiling points in that Gulf Coast city.

The frills are few. Hot sauces from three continents crowd the tables. Mardi Gras beads drape the refrigerator.

Its owner, Tony Bu, learned the trade from relatives with New Orleans roots. His boil is a traditional concoction, flavored with a commercial Cajun seasoning mix. But Mr. Bu drenches some of his crayfish in garlicky margarine and serves them in clear plastic bags. He dishes up crayfish fried rice, too.

A margarine drench and bag service are not characteristic of boiling points in Louisiana; nor is a make-your-own swab of lime juice, black pepper and salt, which recalls the traditional Vietnamese dip called muoi tieu chanh.

While flavored butter or margarine is sometimes an option in Houston, at Los Angeles-area crayfish restaurants owned by Vietnamese, it’s usually standard.

Boiling Crab in Garden Grove, Calif., which Dada Ngo and her husband, Sinh Nguyen, opened in 2003, now has eight locations in the state and beyond. All tout their finishing sauces, including a buttery blend of garlic, lemon pepper and Cajun spice mix known as the Whole Sha-Bang.

The ethnic background of the owners is downplayed. The Boiling Crab Web site portrays Mr. Nguyen as a beer-drinking good ol’ boy from Seadrift, Tex. Ms. Ngo, his Kansas-born bride, goes by the handle Yo’ Mama.

Boiling Crab was a pioneer. In the years since it opened, its success has inspired a dozen or more competing businesses, including Claws, also in Garden Grove. A pirate-themed restaurant owned by a Vietnamese family and decorated with life-size swashbuckler mannequins, Claws serves a sauce-smothered style of crayfish as well as nontraditional dishes like periwinkle snails simmered in coconut-basil sauce.

Mr. Pham, of Atlanta, is not a fan of margarine- or butter-slicked crayfish.

“I want my flavor to be in the crawfish meat,” he said, sounding like a third-generation Cajun purist. “Not on the shell. You’re not supposed to get the flavor when you lick your fingers.”

He learned to love crayfish in Louisiana. Like many Christian youths there, Mr. Pham spent long summer stretches at church camps, including an annual Vietnamese Baptist gathering, often held in New Orleans.

Following the lead of Vietnamese campers from Louisiana, he learned how to clean crayfish and how to season the water in which they cook.

Mr. Pham, who once studied to be an interior designer, sets the scene well. He stocks his shelves with Louisiana-produced étouffée and beignet mixes and emphasizes the Cajun Country origins of his crayfish. But his efforts don’t amount to gimmickry.

The foods that emerge from this small kitchen staffed by his family, including his mother, Hoe Pham, taste like honest tributes to Louisiana, filtered through the life experiences and cooking repertories of Southeast Asian immigrants.

Nuoc mia, sugar-cane juice pressed to order from Louisiana cane, is on the menu. So are spring rolls threaded with Louisiana shrimp.

Mr. Pham sources his oysters, crabs and shrimp from Gulf Coast waters. “We don’t believe in imported stuff,” he said.

Mr. Pham is not, however, beholden to Vietnamese or Louisianan measures of authenticity. He respects the New Orleans bread-baking traditions that make possible the po’ boy. But he prefers Amoroso brand bread from Philadelphia, loaves more often associated with cheese-steak sandwiches.

“I’m not trying to do it just like them,” Mr. Pham said, speaking of his friends back in Louisiana. “I’ve got to find my own way, too.”

Customers recognize the link between Vietnam and Louisiana even as they make sport of it.

For Jeff Cook, a music promoter, Mr. Pham’s fried crayfish po’ boys brought to mind the raucous processions behind New Orleans’s brass band parades.

Using the local name for those celebrations, tongue planted firmly in cheek, Mr. Cook gave a nod and a wink to tradition. “Not many people know it,” he said, “but the Vietnamese are very famous for their ‘second lines.’ ”

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