The Dao Family Shares Their Viet-Cajun Crawfish Tradition
"You just don't...look like someone from Texas," some people can't help but inform me when I tell them I was born and raised in the Lone Star State. "But, people," I respond, with a bless-your-heart smile, "I'm from Houston."
The implication of my un-Texan-ness, even in appearance, used to bother me, but now I relish the chance to enlighten those who have come from other places. By many measures, Houston is one of the most ethnically diverse major cities in the country—something obvious to anyone who has tried the food. Here in Space City, fancy steak houses sit comfortably beside soul food canteens and Japanese soba dens. Grocery stores carry Chinese snacks, Indian spices, and Mexican produce. It's a colorful, sprawling culinary landscape.
My visits home from New York City, where I live now, are less frequent these days, but I do my best to make it back for my family's annual crawfish boils—because Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish is what my Texas looks like. It's dozens of parents, uncles, aunties, cousins, and friends clearing 70 pounds of crawfish—and a couple coolers of beer—in the afternoon sun. It's my aunt Van Dao, our family's designated crawfish master, obsessing over the perfect amount of spice. It's loud conversations, sticky hands, burning lips, and heaps of discarded shells.
It's worth noting that Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish doesn't have any actual roots in Vietnam; it's a Southern food through and through. Like Tex-Mex or Creole cuisine, it was born on American soil through a specific set of circumstances at a particular moment in time. When tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees landed on the Gulf Coast, it was Louisiana's "boiling points" that most resembled the casual, social outdoor stalls in Vietnam where you'd go to throw back a few beers while snacking on fish, shellfish, or snails.
For my family, it began when I was in elementary school: Every year from April until August, my parents and their friends would get together on weekends for backyard boils. They'd take turns hosting, and while the kids ran around the house, the adults spent hours on end outside—washing, cooking, mixing, and eating those seemingly alien critters.
"We started making crawfish about 20 years ago when we would take short trips to Louisiana," says Auntie Van. "The first time we tried it the Vietnamese way was actually at a wedding—we sat there and picked apart the ingredients. There was some garlic, a little orange. Around that time, your Auntie Trinh came up with the recipe we use today."
Although all Vietnamese families have their own (typically unwritten) boil recipe, the sauce she describes is emblematic of the Vietnamese-Cajun style. Like in Cajun or Lowcountry versions, the crawfish starts off boiled in a spice blend. The difference is that it's cooled and then thrown into an ice chest or container filled with a chunky sauce, usually involving lots of butter, diced garlic cloves, orange wedges, and peppers. The result is high-intensity flavor on the inside and outside—a simple tweak that launched an unprecedented crawfish craze spreading from Houston's Chinatown to Los Angeles and the Midwest.
Two decades into this tradition, we've refined the process to a science. The day begins with prep: The crawfish are hosed down before going into a large pot of boiling water with corn and potatoes. Around the time folks arrive to start on appetizers, the first of the mudbugs have been tossed in the magic sauce and set out on serving trays. One thing that is different every time around? New faces.
"I remember the first time I invited my non-Vietnamese friends to my mom's house to try our version of crawfish," says Auntie Van's son, my cousin Khang Tran. "They were blown away. It's always exciting to introduce people to this recipe we have fallen in love with. Now, when summer rolls around, everyone here knows that means crawfish. It has its own season."
For Vietnamese people, food—and even more importantly, entertaining—is perhaps the most salient expression of love. I can see it in the way my parents pull out all the stops setting up the backyard the night before a boil or how my father labors over a pot of seafood gumbo to accompany the crawfish. And no one embodies this idea more than Auntie Van, who works feverishly on new recipes for weeks in advance.
"My mom is a mad scientist. She loves to try new things," says Khang. "That crawfish is basically perfect already, but she's always thinking about how to make it better. That's where you see how much she loves everyone in the family."
Of course, there's also some friendly inter-family competition. One of my fondest memories was a contest between Auntie Van (my father's sister) and my mother's brother, Uncle Son. "We did a very careful blind tasting," says Auntie Van. "It was really close, but I won and made your Uncle Son bow down and recognize that my recipe is the best!"
It's not clear exactly whom to credit for the "invention" of Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish. Nor is it clear what the official recipe should be—as with many other dishes created and riffed on by Vietnamese cooks, who rarely utilize recipes, Viet-Cajun crawfish is a moving target. But there's no denying the fact that Houston's many crawfish restaurants (now a crowded field of contenders) have evolved the dish into its next iteration, building off that original seasoning technique with tasty innovations in both ingredients and forms.
Restaurants like James Beard Award semifinalist Crawfish & Noodles; the 15-year-old pioneer, Cajun Kitchen; and Kau Ba Kitchen are frequented by locals and sought out by visitors. And that has led to people trying other forms of Vietnamese food, after having first been introduced to the gateway drug of crawfish.
"People hear about this Vietnamese-Cajun restaurant thing, and they come out to Chinatown to try it," says Cajun Kitchen chef-owner John Nguyen. "But then they see the rest of the menu and want to try other kinds of seafood like clams and snails too. Our customers here are white, black, Latino—everyone is so open-minded."
Even after living in New York City for 10 years, I still find Houston to be one of the most magical places in America. Maybe that's because it's one of the most clear-cut examples of a spot where food has been the defining factor in rewriting a stereotypical narrative. This Texas city is leading the conversation about a dynamic South—a living, evolving place that is at once informed by and informing the world.
When I went home last May for a boil, we cooked up our crawfish with a side of Cajun fried rice and my dad's signature gumbo. For dessert, we had blueberry pie. The guests were as varied as the food, yet nothing and no one felt out of place. What could look more like Texas, more like America, than that?