How Viet-Cajun Cuisine Came to Be
"Top Chef" contestant Nini Nguyen shares how the Vietnamese diaspora created a whole new cuisine.
What is Viet-Cajun cuisine and how did it come about?
As a Vietnamese chef who grew up in New Orleans, I get asked this question a lot. Vietnamese immigrants created Viet-Cajun cuisine upon landing on the Gulf Coast, but specifically in Houston, Texas. While the stereotype of Texas doesn't necessarily include Vietnamese or Cajun people, Viet-Cajun cuisine is a fundamental part of Texas culinary history. This is the story of Vietnamese people, their resilience, and how food is a way we can all find common ground. Here is a little history lesson on how these two cultures collided and a new cuisine was born.
In 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, an influx of Vietnamese refugees immigrated to the United States. Most of them settled in California, followed by Texas, and then my home state, Louisiana, along with a couple of other places. Many Vietnamese folks who ended up in Texas and Louisiana found work in the seafood industry, as it was a trade that was very familiar to the motherland (Vietnam is a coastal country). Today, Vietnamese people make up about one-third of the Gulf Coast fishermen. About 80% of Vietnamese people in the area are tied to the seafood industry in the form of fishing, seafood preparation, equipment, stores, and restaurants.
Related:Curry Shrimp Étouffée
The Cajun (and the Creole)
A common misconception is that Cajun people and their cuisine come from New Orleans when in fact both come from the South Louisiana bayous in and around the Lafayette region. Cajun food is robust, rustic food that is a combination of French Acadian (from Nova Scotia) and Southern cuisines. Think of meals with lots of smoked meats as well as meat-heavy, one-pot dishes like jambalaya or the rice-filled, spicy pork sausage known as boudin. Rice is an important ingredient in Cajun cooking because rice farms are a big industry in this area, and in the off-season, the rice patties are used to farm crawfish. Therefore we really owe it to the Cajuns for crawfish culture.
Cajun and Creole often get conflated, as they have a lot of similarities, but there are key differences. New Orleans’ food is considered Creole cuisine. Creole food is cosmopolitan food, created in New Orleans with European, African, and Native American roots. The French influence is strongest but Italian, Spanish, German, and Caribbean can be found in some dishes. The essence of Creole cuisine is found in rich sauces, local herbs, red ripe tomatoes, and the prominent use of seafood caught in local waters. The main similarities between Creole and Cajun food are that most dishes include the “holy trinity,” which is onions, celery, and bell peppers, and that many dishes start with a roux. Both cuisines emphasize creating depth in sauces and both have their own versions of similar dishes.
The Vietnamese journey
In 1979, after fleeing Vietnam, my mother’s family was placed in New Orleans East, where the Roman Catholic church sponsored a big Vietnamese community. Unlike other areas in the U.S. wherein Vietnamese refugees were spread across different neighborhoods to encourage assimilation, in New Orleans, the Vietnamese immigrants occupied donated homes in the same neighborhood. This allowed the Vietnamese to create their own community and preserve their culture.
Related:Viet-Cajun Fried Catfish Po’boy
When one family in the community learned a new trade, they would teach other families so that everyone had an opportunity to make a living in this new country. Besides fishing, shucking oysters (which is what my grandma did), or building crab traps (like my uncles and grandpa), Viet people started to work and own corner stores (what we call convenience stores). Most corner stores sold hot food, and Black cooks taught my family how to make the food of New Orleans — gumbo, po’boys, and red beans and rice. When my aunt opened her own corner store, she made those same dishes and taught other Vietnamese people how to make them as well. New Orleans has such strong culinary traditions that Vietnamese people really respect and do not want to change. After all, we were the guests in this community and wanted to serve the people.
I think a big part of why Vietnamese people gravitated toward New Orleans, besides the work they can do, is because it reminds them of being back home in Vietnam. When you are in the French Quarter in downtown New Orleans, in the hot humidity, it is exactly what it feels like in the French Quarters in Ha Noi or Saigon. There are so many similarities in the culture that I can understand why my grandparents found comfort in this city. The coffee culture, the beignets, the people who speak French, and even the beloved catfish. Oh, and the love for rice. Gotta have rice.
Related:Rice Is Everything
So by the 1990s through the 2000s, Vietnamese people found their foothold in New Orleans and started to thrive. Viet-run seafood shops were all over the city, but under generic names like Cajun seafood or Captain Sal’s. It wasn’t until two major catastrophes happened that a big exodus of the Vietnamese population occurred. The first one was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I remember being a teenager and seeing all of the same people in my community evacuating to Houston, Texas, every time there was a hurricane. Katrina was no different except a lot of people ended up staying in Houston after the storm. Then a few years later, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated the seafood industry. Vietnamese people who once relied heavily on the Gulf of Mexico for their source of income had to find other ways to make a living. Luckily crawfish come from the land with shallow water. More Vietnamese people relocated to Texas, and they needed to find a way to differentiate themselves from the many businesses in Houston. This is about when Viet-Cajun food was born. Vietnamese people were doing inventive things to traditional Louisiana foods and the people of Texas loved it. It was a huge hit because I think people weren't as tied to the roots of the food in this new city.
In the last five or so years, Viet-Cajun food became all the rage — so much so that Viet-Cajun food became a hot marketing term in New Orleans. But I want to mention that Vietnamese food influenced New Orleans way before this phenomenon — in the reverse. Vietnamese food inspired the local chefs. You could find takes on banh mi sandwiches or pho-inspired flavors on menus all over the city. Changes in food can go both ways and it is beautiful. Maybe in some ways, the Vietnamese needed to find out if it was OK to adapt some of the region’s near and dear dishes. Now, we are no longer guests, but instead part of the fabric that makes up the culture here.