Sara A. Lewis: Welcome to Points South. I’m your host Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. On today’s episode we’re joined by Andrea Nguyen. Cookbook author and overall expert on Vietnamese cuisine. She traveled to New Orleans with producer Christian Brown searching for the roots of VietCajun food, an incredibly popular fusion appearing on menus all over the country. In this two-part episode, Andrea and Christian discover the ways Vietnamese Americans see themselves in New Orleans’ rich food culture.
Andrea Nguyen: This is great! Love this. There’s this gorgeous mural here, New Orleans original Cajun cooking. That's just like a really cute mural. And this is a counter service restaurant. So you order and sit down and eat. They're not gonna take your order here and wait on you. Hi there. I’m Andrea Nguyen, and I am in New Orleans. Looking for crawfish boils. We have an 11 o'clock appointment with Chi. An Uber driver suggested Cajun Seafood in Treme. My co-producer, Christian Brown and I were staying around the corner so we promptly walked on over. Fried rice with lots of shrimp. Wow! And then there's also spicy garlic butter, which is sort of a Vietnamese thing. Good morning. What an operation you've got here!
Chi Nguyen: Yeah.This is the main kitchen area. You can talk to her. She's Vietnamese. She's a hundred percent.
AN: Cajun Seafood is owned by a Vietnamese family. It’s a legacy restaurant that’s been around for nearly 30 years. Here is what owners Mrs. Nga Le and her son Chi Nguyen had to say: What do you call your food?
CN: We just call it Cajun Creole. We don't call it Viet because we don't have any traditional Asian food here.
AN: Mrs. Le and her husband, Viet Nguyen, opened the first Cajun Seafood in 1995 in Uptown. Back in the 1990s there weren’t that many Vietnamese-owned restaurants serving mainstream American food. But what is Cajun-Creole? We’ll come back to that later. Here’s Mrs. Le
Mrs. Le: People just kept coming to eat. Before opening the seafood restaurants, I owned small grocery stores. I made po boys and hot food. Customers just kept coming. They didn’t care that we were Vietnamese. AN: But how does Mrs. Le stay connected to her Vietnamese cooking roots? Mrs. Le just said:
Mrs. Le: No, no, no. Bun rice noodle bowls, grilled nem sausages – I make those for the annual Tet festival for the church.
AN: Like a lot of Vietnamese refugee immigrants to New Orleans, Mrs. Le has a tight connection to the Catholic Church in New Orleans East.
AN: There are several locations of Cajun Seafood in New Orleans. This one is in a historic neighborhood. Treme is the first free Black American neighborhood in America. It’s lined with creole shotgun houses and numerous legendary restaurants, including Dooky Chase. So.. How does Vietnamese owned Cajun Seafood fit into that world? Here’s Mrs. Le again.
Mrs. Le: When you talk about seasonings – garlic, chile pepper – everyone uses them. Vietnamese, Americans – it don’t matter. We use all those seasonings. But, what we gotta do is figure out what seasonings Americans eat and Vietnamese people eat so that everyone can come here. You know, it’s not just Americans who come here. Vietnamese, Mexicans, all kinds of Asian people come. Sometimes there’s a tour bus with 50 to 70 people coming on the weekends. Sometimes it’s so crowded. There can be 5 to 7 tables of Asian tourists in here. It don’t matter. The food I have here – Americans can eat it. Chinese people can eat it. Vietnamese people can eat it, Americans eat it. Everybody. My Gumbo, fish, shrimp, fried seafood, everything – everyone can eat this food.
AN: Mrs. Le’s came a long way to build her life in New Orleans. She, her husband and their family fled their home in Vung Tau, Vietnam. They left by boat in late-April 1975. Just a few days before the Fall of Saigon. Mrs. Le said:
Mrs. Le: We went from Guam to Fort Chaffee and eventually sponsored to different cities and locations in Florida, Tennessee, and Lafayette in Louisiana. I didn’t like those places. When I got to New Orleans in 1977, I liked it. This city is not too big and there are conveniences like the public bus system that took us everywhere. I felt like I could start a business here and we could raise our children.
AN: Before Cajun Seafood Mrs. Le and her family earned their dues. The family worked in the New Orleans seafood industry for 13 years. Mrs. Le shucked oysters and also worked at a restaurant called Deanie’s. Her husband dove into the Vietnamese fishing community.
Mrs. Le: Coming to America, my husband and I knew no English. We had little education. We eventually had 9 children to raise. We didn’t have much. We struggled, prayed to the Lord, and worked with our hands to raise our family. We did not rely on any public assistance. All my children went to private Catholic School and then university. All my children have careers, and some of them like working with me at the restaurants.
AN: Despite saying that they don’t serve Viet-Cajun, Cajun Seafood did have a little Viet twist here and there. Mrs. Le admitted to cooking her crabs with a Viet chile oil called sot sate. And then… there was the garlic butter I’d spied in small plastic containers.
CN: That’s our butter garlic sauce.
AN: Oh. Wow!
CN: Yeah. We make our own butter garlic sauce. But the thing is, we don't mix it like boiling crab does.
CN: We sell it on the side where people could dip.
AN: When people think of Viet Cajun restaurants they often point to The Boiling Crab, a California-based chain. The Boiling Crab started in 1994, but before they launched, they visited Cajun Seafood. They’re all friendly with one another. Chi and his mom let them take a look around. Fresh local seafood and Mrs. Le’s seasonings are not the only ingredients that make her a magnet. There are certain techniques that Cajun Seafood has been practicing for a long time to ensure deep flavor without overcooking the crawfish. Chi pointed to a giant wok set over high heat jet burners and nodded to me to take a look.
CN: We’ve been doin that. We did that first.
AN: Cajun Seafood. The ORIGINAL.
Karl Takacs Jr.: It's really a melting pot Right. Of everybody. But I've never really considered myself to be… like Cajun.
AN: That’s Karl Takacs Jr. His family owns Pho Tau Bay; a Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans. They have a legacy that goes back 40 years. All the way back to Saigon. He is half Vietnamese, and his wife is cajun. Yet there is nothing cajun on their menu. So we took the 1.4 mile trek from Cajun Seafood to Pho Tau Bay for a quick lunch. What does Viet Cajun mean to Karl Jr.?
KT: My dad used to take me going fishing all the time. We always, we would always go further south into those fishing camps, uh, that were run by mostly cajuns, you know. And, uh, I always felt like, you know, well, we're not Cajun, you know, from up north. And, um, but we partake in, in the activities, you know, so Yeah. I've never really thought about that. But, but there are like some Asian restaurants that opened up and, uh, they call themselves the Asian Cajun or something, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever really boiled a crawfish from scratch.
AN: This is pretty unusual… if not ironic. We’ve been to two legacy Vietnamese restaurants in New Orleans, and they didn’t outright identify with the Viet-Cajun foodways. For them, Viet-Cajun is a nuanced subject. The value of these two establishments isn’t about how Viet Cajun is a union of flavors. Viet-cajun is a union of people.
AN: That night we went to dinner at David Berris’ house. I asked him to help us sort things out.
David Berris: Uh, my name is David Berris. I'm a professor of anthropology at the University of New Orleans and I'm also an Associate Dean at the University of New Orleans. And I write about and study food culture in the Gulf South and in New Orleans in particular.
AN: Cajun vs Creole - Which is a part of what?
DB: I… you know.. Okay… So, as an anthropologist, I am very hesitant to assign my own categories to people. Generally speaking, if you tell me you are X, then as far as I'm concerned, you are X you know, until you tell me otherwise. You call your food whatever you like, and if I like it, I'll eat it. And if I don't, I won't. But it, it doesn't really matter what you call it. Right? So if there are Vietnamese Americans here who call themselves Viet-Cajun, great. You know, this notion that we, we are constantly sort of changing and transforming, um, our cultures is a, you know, kind of a characteristic of our culture as it were. You then have people naming things. So then you get to something like Viet Cajun or, um, any of the more recent iterations of this. And I would argue that really what they're doing with those names is they're, they're indicating that the populations in question have become part of our community. They’re creolizing, in other words. Um, when, when you bring in another group, you transform that, and that's creolizing. So the, when people identify as a Creole, they're, they're asserting it as a kind of ethnic identity.
AN: So who does present VietCajun in New Orleans?
Anh Luu: My name is Anh Luu. I'm the executive chef at Bywater Brew Pub in New Orleans, Louisiana. I grew up in New Orleans East, but most people in my neighborhood were not Vietnamese, was mostly mixed black and white. I don't really know a whole lot of history with the Vietnamese neighborhood, but my mom did take me there a lot when I was a child, cuz there was a farmer's market there.
AN: The Vietnamese people we talked to in New Orleans fled South Vietnam around April 1975, when the Fall of Saigon happened. The airports were crowded, people piled into boats, people scrambling to try to get out of the country before the communists arrived. It was a time of despair and panic. But Anh’s family story is rare. Her parents fled years later, in 1979, after the Sino-Vietnamese War. This was a 3-month war between China and Vietnam. In the aftermath, the Vietnamese government went after anyone of Chinese ancestry. A lot of people forgot about that 1979 war but it mattered to families like Anh’s.
AL: So my dad is ethnically Chinese but he was born in Vietnam, and his dad was Chinese and they, they were discriminating against the Chinese people and that's why my family left Vietnam. There was such a huge cultural divide between me and my family growing up. Because I was the only first generation American in my family. I mean even even up to being an adult and going to Vietnam. It was like my mom would always introduce me as the banana of the family. Always. Yeah.
AN: As the consummate outsider, Anh paved her own path. She didn’t become a chef by way of her family’s restaurant. Her dad had an electronics repair company. He fixed TVs, microwaves, and VCR players. When she was growing up, they lived above the business and she had a wall of TVs that she watched. She watched a lot of cooking shows.
AL: It was called Great Chefs of the World. And Bobby Flay was on that. I remember watching him when I was very young and they're all cooking in their professional kitchens on that show. And I was like, wow, look how cool that looks. Like, I think I can do that.
AN: Anh’s dad worked 6 days a week. Her mom was an obsessive home cook.
AL: I cook because of her for sure, she made everything from scratch. She always wanted to learn how to make something she'd never made. I remember the time that she wanted to learn how to make lap xuong and her hands were pink all the time because you have to like dye it red. Lap xuong is Chinese sausage. It's like that cured dried Chinese sausage that you can chop up and put in a microwave or you eat it with sticky rice a lot. Being from New Orleans, my mom also cooked New Orleans stuff. Her favorite thing was gumbo and red beans. And in the gumbo she would put mum and like Thai chilies instead of cayenne and lime instead of lemon and ginger instead of garlic sometimes. And that's kind of where I draw my inspiration from. But I remember being 15 and knowing that I wanted to be a, a chef like, to work in a restaurant. And that was where I thought you needed to start, traditionally. Like, if I want to be a chef, I should go work in a restaurant.
AN: And your parents were okay with you going into cooking as a profession?
AL: They weren't, no, not when I was in high school, but it really wasn't until well after Katrina, they were like, please go follow your dreams. Like we, you know, they lost everything. Our house flooded. We evacuated in one car together. We lost all the cars, the whole house. My dad's business, like, they had to, he had to retire. Like, there was no coming back from it. It was too much. They lost too much.
AN: Anh’s parents eventually moved to Portland and she joined them in 2009 to attend culinary school.
AL: I chose to go to culinary school out there to be near my family because even though I wasn't close with them, I knew that it was important to be, to be near them. I started working at a Cajun restaurant when I moved to Portland. The same one that I ultimately bought, Tapalaya. When I became the chef there in 2013, that's, I kind of made it my mission when I started working there. I was like, well I'm from New Orleans, so, let's do things right.
AN: If I want to Viet it up… if I want to Viet up my food experience…
AL: Ooh, limes and lemon grass. Yeah. Lemongrass is definitely more prevalent in like Cajun recipes and stuff. Now ginger too. Yeah. There's a lot of, a lot of similarities between Cajun Creole and Vietnamese food just because of the location. Like, like Hanoi and, and New Orleans are on the same latitude, so they're sister cities. And so the same kind of like vegetation is happening, we have the same seasons and we're both coastal and French influenced. I kind of doctor up my boil with a lot of lemon grass and ginger and I use the, I kind of cheat and I use the base for bun rieu. I use that in my crawfish etouffee, you know, the mince prawns and the can. So I use that in my etouffee and in my crawfish boil. And that's what gives my crawfish like a little je ne se quoi. So there's a lot of overlap between Cajun, Creole and Vietnamese flavors that I thought was fun to kind of trick people into eating, like something Vietnamese or I love make, getting people to eat stuff that they're like, Ew, no I don't eat that. Like, that's my favorite thing to do.
AN: Anh’s confidence grew in the kitchen. She and her sister eventually bought Tapalaya in Portland. But things didn’t really go according to plan.
AL: My mom died the same week that I bought that restaurant in a car accident very suddenly. So it was kind of, didn't start off on the right foot and my sister and I bought the restaurant together. I couldn't see us being successful ‘cause I also had just worked myself to the bone and I didn't have, I I didn't have the time to grieve my mom's death. And I mean, I'm still struggling with that now. And she always wanted to move back here after Katrina happened. But it just never panned out for them. She was on vacation here on the way back and that's when they got in the accident. So like, she had spent her last month alive here in New Orleans. In her happy place. And, and I couldn't, you know, like when you're, when you are born and raised here, it is always, there's always something that pulls you back here. And I moved down here to, to heal mostly.
AN: You're born here, you went away and then you came back. You have this, Viet-Cajun identity in terms of food and stuff, and it's so creative. But I also hear that you are trying to push more to bring your Vietnameseness into your life. And what's that like?
AL: It's a strange feeling for sure. I feel like a little kid again. I definitely feel like I time traveled a bit coming back here because the same bumpy roads and the same struggles of like hurricane season and the weather being crazy. It reminds me of where I came from and who I am.AN: Anh cooks special dinners with a non-profit called the Veggi Farmer’s Cooperative. It’s in New Orleans East. Whenever she does that, she goes out of her way to avoid making fancy, cheffy food.
AL: Because that's the food that I crave when I wanna eat something. And it's like the food of our ancestors. It's the same dishes that my mom was fed when she was a kid and what she's, you know, it's like cooking the food that my mom cooked is how I keep her alive and how I… keep myself connected to the passion that I have for cooking. Actually it's her birthday today. Yeah. And it was actually the last time that I saw her was on her birthday.
AL: Mm-hmm. . I know. So this day is, is always a, a tough day for me. It's actually tougher than the anniversary Yeah. Of her death. Mm-hmm. just because it was the last time I, I got to see her alive. We went to get dim sum in Portland and then she went to New Orleans the next day. I know. So it's very poetic, this day.
AN: A few weeks after this conversation, Anh stepped away from Bywater Brewpub to launch her own private chef and cooking class business. Much of her loss and hope lie in the New Orleans food landscape, especially what’s going on in the sprawling suburbs and wetlands of New Orleans East. New Orleans East is the historic nerve center of the Vietnamese community here. It’s where many refugees came and first settled. We headed east.
SL: Join us in our search for Viet Cajun next week to hear how people in New Orleans East are sustaining the traditional Vietnamese foodways that strengthen Viet-Cajun’s cultural exchange. We’ll visit VEGGI Coop, and local farmers… then off to a Vietnamese market. And we will absolutely be getting a king cake! In the meantime, visit oxfordamerican.org/pointssouth to see Tet New Orleans, a beautiful new short film by Marion Hill. It follows chef Nini Nguyễn as she prepares a traditional feast for the Lunar New Year. This episode was produced by me, Christian Brown, and Andrea Nguyen. Original music by Dylan Tran. Thank you to Nga Le and Chi Nguyen, Karl Takacs Jr, and Anh Lu. Thanks to Dr. David Berris. Our podcast intern is Adam Forrester. Post-production and score thanks to Curtis Fye and Trey Pollard of Spacebomb. This episode is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.