National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Mekong Meets The Mississippi
Vietnamese twists on classic Cajun fare are some of the exciting culinary revelations in the Bayou State, a delectable mash-up born of both immigration and a surprising cultural kinship. Words: David Farley
I’m standing near the water in Venice having one of the best meals of my life. No, not Venice, Italy; not even Venice, California. I’m in Venice, Louisiana, on the Mississippi Delta, 70 miles south of New Orleans. A gaggle of Vietnamese-American fishermen and I are congregating around a plus-sized metal pot of boiled, just-caught shrimp, each of us plucking a morsel from the scalding broth, twisting off the head, tossing the remnants into the water, then popping the tender meat in our mouths. The taste is a wonderful mix of salty, sweet, spicy, and savoury, as hints of lemongrass protrude on the back of my tongue. It’s classic Louisiana shrimp boil but with Vietnamese accents. “Wait,” I say, putting my hands in the air, broth dripping down my wrist. “You eat like this all the time?”
The answer, of course, is yes. Everyone lifts their beers to a chorus of ‘Môt hai ba dzô!’ (Vietnamese for ‘cheers’). This may have been a singular meal for me, but for these shrimpers it was merely the culmination of a day’s work. And everyone in the surrounding area, including New Orleans, is better off for it. In terms of food and dining, Vietnamese immigrants have added a deeper layer of deliciousness to a part of the US already drenched in rich, superlative fare. The Vietnamese cuisine being made in and around New Orleans is the best I’ve had outside of Vietnam. Some of it — like this shrimp boil — has evolved into a marriage of Vietnamese and Cajun styles.
To understand this phenomenon, we have to go back to 1975, when tens of thousands of Southern Vietnamese immigrated to the US after the Fall of Saigon. Much of this diaspora — which included a sizeable contingent of fishermen — ended up in Louisiana. At the time, there was little interest in Vietnamese cuisine among the locals. Then two things happened: firstly, the immigrants began doing their take on Cajun cuisine — starting commercial shrimp boil cookouts, not too dissimilar to what I’d experienced on the dock. And secondly, Hurricane
Katrina tore through the area in 2005. The Vietnamese, who were largely segregated in the New Orleans East and Gretna districts, proved especially adept at recovering from the hurricane, due in part to their experience of surviving typhoons back home, and became involved in community outreach. After that, they were suddenly much more integrated than ever before. Good-quality, authentic Vietnamese restaurants began popping up all over the city. A few people I talk to tell me it was like the 1990s when sushi was suddenly all the rage. After Katrina, they say, it was like that here with Vietnamese food.
It may be a coincidence or a part of some divine plan, perhaps, but the parallels between Vietnam and Louisiana are striking. “When you think about it, the blending of our cuisines and cultures seem inevitable,” says Anthony Tran, who fled his homeland for Louisiana in the late ’70s. “There’s the humid weather; the Mekong Delta and the Mississippi Delta; we both have ricegrowing cultures; we’re both former French colonies.” Anthony also notes the similarities between the banh mi and the po’ boy sandwich; the Vietnamese blood sausage and the boudin sausage; gumbo and various Vietnamese soups and stews, such as bo kho and bún bò hue. The cultural kinship could go on and on.
And so today, New Orleans is brimming with incredible Vietnamese fare, from the banh mi sandwich at Dong Phuong Bakery, with its airy, flaky bread, to the Vietnamese-Cajun-hybrid shrimp boils at Cajun Seafood, and creative Vietnamese fare at Ba Chi Canteen.
The latter is where I spend a memorable evening with my Vietnamese shrimper friends; a dozen of us sitting around a table feasting on dishes I’d never seen outside of Vietnam. As we pick at raw croaker fish with a tamarind dip, we talk about the Vietnamese place in New Orleans cultural heritage. “We’re a proud part of New Orleans now,” says Phuoc Nguyen. Everyone raises their bottle of Tiger beer. “Môt hai ba dzô!”
HOW TO DO IT: Sidewalk Food Tours and Tastebud Tours offer walking tours of New Orleans from $75 (£54) and $70 (£50), respectively. dpbakery.com facebook.com/bachicanteenla cajunseafoodnola.com sidewalkfoodtours.com tastebudtours.com