Sunday, May 30, 2010

Finger food

On an earlier post, we talked about how the traditions of immigrant communities change and diverge from those that remain in the home country - we were talking about cuisine, particularly.

Here in Southern California - and in other parts of the U.S. - there's an interesting culinary phenomenon that mingles the styles of two very different ethnic communities - Vietnamese and Cajun.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese refugees came to the United States. Many of them settled in Southern California - the city of Westminster in Orange County is one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in the United States. But many immigrants found a home and a livelihood on the Gulf Coast, in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Fishermen in Vietnam, they found it an easy transition to work in the seafood industry in America's Gulf Coast. Generations of Vietnamese immigrants absorbed the Cajun culture of the Louisiana and Texas coast.

It makes sense, when you think about it. Both communities love seafood, pork, rice and hot spices.

In September of 2005, Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast. Thousands of people fled, and some of them came to Southern California's Vietnamese-American communities. Interesting new restaurants opened up and became popular.

The Boiling Crab is the pioneer of the Vietnamese-Cajun seafood phenomenon in Southern California. Now with branches all over California and Texas, this mom-and-pop chain is a modern Vietnamese take on traditional Gulf Coast crab shacks. The seafood is shipped in from the Gulf Coast.

We went to the branch in Alhambra, California, on Valley Boulevard - Valley Boulevard is also home to some of the best Vietnamese restaurants in Los Angeles County. From the outisde, the store looks like a fast-food restaurant. Out back by the parking lot, there are benches under a shady awning - because people line up here and wait for the food.

Our wait was only a few minutes on a Saturday afternoon. A pony-tailed woman in a t-shirt and shorts brought us cold beer and took our order. Then she tied plastic bibs around our necks. At first we wanted to turn down the offer, but then we looked around and saw that everyone else had one.

I don't know how traditional Cajun crab-boil joints cook their food, but something tells me that The Boiling Crab's technique is a modern innovation. You order your choice of seafood by the pound - you can get shrimp, crawfish, crabs (blue crabs, Dungeness or king crab legs).You pick the seasoning flavor of your choice - Cajun-style, with garlic, butter and cayenne - or Viet-style, with lemon pepper - or a mixture of the two, which they call "The Whole Shebang." They put the seafood and the seasoning (with some butter) in a food-quality plastic bag and dunk it in a boiling cauldron.

The tables are set with a sheet of butcher paper and a roll of paper towels. There are no utensils. When your food is done, the server brings a galvanized bucket out and dumps a plastic bag full of succulent shrimp, crawfish, or other seafood right onto the table. You just reach in with your hands and go for it.

The shrimp are big, plump, and served with their heads on. Gulf Coast shrimp are pale pink and sweet-fleshed.

This time of year, the crawfish are in season, so we got a pound of them. They're about 5 inches long, with their tails curled under them, fire-cracker-red with their little claws thrust out. For all their formidable appearance, there's not much meat in a crawfish. You break off the body at the joint of the tail, and prize out the small nugget of tender pink meat from the curled shell. . If the claws are big enough, you can crack them, too, and extract sweet slivers of meat. Brave diners suck the fatty juices from the crawfish body and head - "suck da head and pinch da tail" is the saying. I took a good look at the head and decided to take a pass on it.

Everybody uses their hands here. The nearby tables are filled with college kids, laborers, families with kids. Everyone's hands are dripping with garlic and butter and seasoning. All, from the smallest toddler to the oldest grandma are busy cracking crab claws in their fingers, twisting the heads off crawfish, and sucking the succulent meat from the shells. The butcher-paper table covers are littered with shrimp heads, crab shells, and the bright red carcasses of crawfish. If you ask, the servers will dump a pile of quartered lemons onto the table.

You can also get sides of corn on the cob, french fried potatoes or sweet potatoes, rice, and chunks of spicy sausage.

More beer, please!

When it's all over, the table is strewn with the carnage of a seafood orgy. The servers simply bundle the mess up in the butcher-paper and take it away. You're left with sauce up to your elbows and lemon wedges and towels to clean it up.

We were full and happy, but there was a poignancy about our experience, too. The seafood served at The Boiling Crab is shipped in from the Gulf Coast - and the BP oil spill is destroying the Gulf fisheries, perhaps for generations to come. Areas of the Gulf are closed to fishing, and soon the industry may shut down entirely. While enjoying all this abundance of seafood, I couldn't help thinking that maybe it would be for the last time in a long, long time.

Cajun-Vietnamese cuisine came into being as one immigrant community assimilated and adapted blending their traditions with the unique traditions they found in their new home. It traveled to Southern California after a natural disaster. Now another disaster affects these communities further - and affects all of us.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

HA! I'm surprised you haven't attracted zombies with that title.

Nice writeup, Aunt Snow. And I had the same reaction when I saw this wasn't about zombies...that in a little while, we aren't going to be eating seafood from the Gulf. And for how long?

Effing BP. Effing huge corporations and the politicians they've bought. They're destroying our country, and still no one will stand up to them. It's really depressing.

Gilly said...

I feel really sorry for those whose livelihood is affected by BP's oil spill. Its all over the UK papers, sounds absolutely dreadful, and BP doesn't seem to have any sense of urgency about them!

I feel really sorry for the wildlife too - we've had oil spills along the UK coast, and the sight of oiled seabirds trying to get their feathers clean and ingesting the oil is pathetic.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

While I enjoyed reading about your delicious meal (more beer, please!), I couldn't help but be thinking about the awful changes coming to so many, including this restaurant and its owners.
I have no answers, just horrified sorrow, over the entire disaster in the Gulf.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

While enjoying all this abundance of seafood, I couldn't help thinking that maybe it would be for the last time in a long, long time.

That's what I immediately thought- how depressing.