HOUSTON, TEXAS - Cajun food is well known along the Gulf Coast in the southern part of the United States. This type of food is known for its unique blend of spices in seafood, sausage and rice.
But less well known is a much newer type of cuisine. It blends Cajun food introduced by French colonists who settled in Louisiana in the late 1700s and dishes introduced by Vietnamese refugees who settled in Louisiana after Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975.
Many of the Vietnamese who live along the Gulf Coast have created something new by blending the two cultures.
The Houston-based restaurant Crawfish & Noodles is one of many Cajun food establishments founded by Vietnamese immigrants.
Special blend of seasonings
Restaurant owner and chef Trong Nguyen makes boiled crawfish, perhaps the best known of Cajun foods. However, he adds something a little different to the traditional Cajun spices.
“We sprinkle that with Viet-Cajun seasoning,” said Nguyen as he mixed boiled crawfish with a blend of seasonings.
Similar to traditional Cajun boiled crawfish, Nguyen’s Viet-Cajun version includes garlic, onions and butter. But his crawfish also has Vietnamese spices. He attributed his knack for flavors to his grandmother.
“Back in Vietnam, my grandmom was a very great cook, so I have the taste (after) many years growing up with her,” Nguyen said, remembering helping her prepare Vietnamese dishes.
A refugee at 17
Nguyen was 17 when he settled in Houston in the late 1980s as a Vietnamese refugee seeking political asylum. In the U.S., he studied and worked several jobs, including casino marketing and hotel restaurant management, before owning his family-run restaurant that specialized in Vietnamese-Cajun-styled seafood.
Many Vietnamese immigrants along the Gulf Coast turned to the seafood industry.
“The first (Vietnamese) immigrant(s) (who) came to the U.S. (are) pretty much the people (who) live in the shrimp boat. You know they do a lot of shrimp and stuff,” Nguyen said, adding that it made sense for Vietnamese immigrants to embrace Cajun dishes, many of which feature crawfish, shrimp and catfish cooked with distinct Cajun spices.
“The Vietnamese seem to understand the culture more. Vietnamese dive into that kind of business,” said Nguyen, who also uses French ingredients in his foods.
The two cultures appear different, but they share an important historic link: Vietnam was a French colony, and the Cajuns’ ancestors were French colonists.
Nguyen said customers at his restaurant have developed quite a taste for this fusion of flavors. Popular dishes include Cajun shrimp, salt and pepper crab, calamari and Viet-Cajun crawfish.
“The oriental spices are probably less salty than the traditional Cajun, different spices that give it a very unique flavor,” said crawfish lover Mike Vandenbold, a native of southern Louisiana. He and his friends have been coming to the restaurant once a week for the past three months.
“When we came here, the extra Viet-Cajun spice is what made it for us. We like these better than the traditional Cajun crawfish,” Vandenbold said.
“It’s very flavorful,” said Terri Tran, a Vietnamese-American. There’s lots of seasoning on it, and the crawfish is cooked perfectly.”
Nguyen said he hopes the next generation of chefs will create even better versions of Vietnamese Cajun cuisine and celebrate the unique blending of flavors and cultures.