Dan Q. Dao
Houston (munchies.vice.com): Even before I could eat crawfish, I loved watching my dad and uncles haul in ten-pound bags of the clawed critters, live and squirming, for backyard boils at our houses in the Houston suburbs. Into the bubbling water they’d go, before being cooled off and folded into a chunky sauce of butter, garlic, and fresh orange wedges, till the entire block flooded with savory aromas and roaring, beer-fueled laughter. If you’re Vietnamese and grew up in Texas or Louisiana, this early summer tradition probably sounds familiar.
Those memories are fond, and I’d come to find the crawfish delicious too, but I’d never have anticipated how illustrious our style of boiling would become, for both its brilliant form and its colorful significance to the South’s cultural fabric. Last month, the James Beard Awards—those so-called “Oscars of the Food World”—recognized the dish’s existence with a Best Chef semifinalist nod for Trong Nguyen of Houston Chinatown mainstay Crawfish & Noodles. This month, Vietnamese crawfish gets prime airtime in a dedicated Gulf Coast episode of celebrity chef David Chang’s glossy, just-released Netflix series Ugly Delicious. And as I discovered on a recent trip to Saigon, nowadays you can even get a decent boil in Vietnam.
Growing up unaware of the complex racial dynamics at play in Houston, now considered the most diverse place in America, I never thought twice about how my parents and their friends loved the messy, hours-long tradition more commonly associated with Cajun cuisine. But perhaps it’s also partly because the dish itself came about so spontaneously. As the story goes, some among the droves of Vietnamese refugees landing in the Gulf Coast—largely fishing communities resettled by the Indochinese Assistance and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975—found comfort in the steaming wonders of Louisiana’s rudimentary “boiling points.” These outdoor predecessors of proper crawfish joints, set in familiarly humid weather and hawking fresh seafood, were not unlike the quán nhậu, or outdoor beer-and-snack joints, of the home country.
“Viet people love noshing and in particular, hands-on eating experiences—in Vietnam, it’s fun to spend hours at a seafood joint where you pick out the live seafood, then have it cooked the way you want it,” says Vietnamese food expert and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen. “Here in the States where those kinds of open-air sidewalk experiences don’t exist, you gather at people’s homes for those kinds of food fests, called nhậu. Crawfish are perfect because the little mud bugs require a little work to eat, can be cooked with various kinds of seasonings, and you can organize awesome nhậu sessions. Being from a country with a very long coastline, Viet people know and prize fresh and saltwater seafood.”
As economic opportunities dwindled in Louisiana, many, including Vietnamese immigrants, moved west to Houston in search of better luck. By the early 2000s, Vietnamese-owned crawfish joints began popping up all over Houston’s Chinatown district, and through immigrant networks, spread to Los Angeles’ Little Saigon. In both cities, the most popular spots—which, in typical Vietnamese fashion, quickly spawned imitators—frequently saw lines out the door. It was a bona fide craze.
But when exactly did Vietnamese-owned Cajun crawfish eateries become Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish eateries? Somewhere along the westward road from Louisiana to California, Vietnamese cooks began tinkering with the time-honored recipe: rather than simply boiling the crawfish in Cajun spices, they add a step of immediately cooling boiled crawfish and then tossing the mudbugs in a butter-based sauce that may also include garlic, onions, peppers, orange wedges, and lemongrass. The result is a succulent inside of crawfish meat and broth-like sauce amplified in flavor by the chunks of bright seasonings and mouth-searing spices encasing the shell. And that’s not to mention the dipping sauce called muối tiêu chanh, which translates literally to salt, pepper, and lime.