Saturday, July 05, 2008

Cajun Vietnamese Shrimp Boil and Musings on American Cuisine

Cajun Vietnamese Shrimp Boil

Yesterday I indulged my American side and had hamburgers and hot dogs. This morning I had Vietnamese pho.

Lil' sis came back from breakfast at Pho 79 Restaurant - Alhambra with a to-go container for me.

"I brought you pho," she said before hopping into the shower.

I opened the container and dumped out the noodles only to find Pho Ga (Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup). To borrow one of her phrases, doesn't she know me at all? I don't like pho ga. :( I mean, I'll eat it, but I'd rather have Pho Bo (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup).

Lil' sis came out of the shower and wondered why I was so quiet.

"How come you got me pho ga?" I asked mournfully, while staring at my bowl of half-eaten noodles and debating whether to finish it.

"I didn't," she said. "I got you pho dac biet." (Vietnamese special beef noodle soup.)

Oh. Lil' sis does know me after all.

It was Pho 79 who screwed up. Hmph! The pho ga had small strips of white breast meat and two quail eggs, but overall it was rather bland. Lil' sis ate some, and I tossed the rest.

In "Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Power, and the Past," anthropologist Sidney Mintz argues that there is no such thing as an American cuisine. We either mention regional specialties such as Cajun or Creole dishes, or hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizzas. Mintz does credit the African influence on American cuisine in the creation of Southern dishes like gumbo. But a national cuisine, one in which everyone cooks, eats, and talks about doesn't, or has yet to, exist. He claims this is one of our country's strengths, a reflection of our democracy and ethnic diversity.

I find his expectation that everyone needs to cook, eat, and discuss the dish in order for it to be considered a "national" cuisine very limiting. Afterall, regional dishes occur in every cuisine, some become more widespread than others. For example, with Vietnamese cuisine, even though it was created in the north, pho bo can be found all over Vietnam and now America. But Cha Ca Thang Long (Vietnamese Hanoi-Style Turmeric Fish with Dill) has yet to achieve the same level of popularity. While more people are likely to cook, eat, and talk about pho bo, that doesn't mean cha ca Thang Long isn't considered an equally important part of Vietnamese cuisine.

And so it is that just because every American might not cook, eat, or talk about a particular dish, doesn't mean it doesn't make up a vital part of American cuisine. To me, American cuisine is partly made up of ethnic absorption and mass popularization. Southern Fried Chicken, New England Clam Chowder, Turkey on Thanksgiving, Cobb Salad, Coke Float, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Waldorf Salad to name just a few. These dishes reflect their regional roots, or were invented out of necessity, or became popularized.

American cuisine is a reflection of America. Our strength lies in our ability to absorb other cuisines and their culture. We aren't all WASPs (That's white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to my non-American readers.) and neither is our cuisine. That sounded a lot more patriotic than I expected. Then again, it is Independence Day weekend and if I can't be patriotic on America's birthday, then when can I?

Since I consider myself a hyphenated American, this dish is also hyphenated. I took the basic premise of a Cajun shrimp boil (It was supposed to be a crawfish boil but no mudbugs at the store the day I went shopping for lil' sis's 21st birthday bash.) and added a Vietnamese touch. Since Huy Fong's Sriracha chili sauce worked so well on my Sriracha Buffalo Wings I decided to add that instead of the usual cayenne. The result is a smoother level of spiciness.

I only used shrimp, but you can certainly make this a seafood boil by adding crab and crawfish. Just make sure you steam the shellfish first and add them in at the same time you add the shrimp so they'll all be cooked at the same time. If you don't know how, then read my primer on how to Prepare Crab first.

Lil Sis Birthday Bash 1

Cajun Vietnamese Shrimp Boil

To feed about 10 people, you'll need:
3 lbs shrimp, heads on preferably
1 lb smoked sausage or Polska Kielbasa, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices
6 red potatoes, quartered
6 ears of corn, cut into thirds
4 tomatoes, cut into big chunks
2 lemons, juice and halves
1 large onion, cut into big chunks
1 head of garlic, chopped
1 stick of butter, about 1/2 cup
3 tblsp Old Bay seasoning, or any other Southern seasoning of your choice
1 tblsp Huy Fong Foods, Inc.'s Sriracha chili hot sauce, or more if you can take the heat
1 tblsp salt

Set a 7-quart stock pot to boil, with water filled about half full. You may need a second stock pot. If so, just distribute the ingredients among the two pots. I just start chopping the ingredients that will take the longest to cook first so that by the time you add the shrimp, it'll only be a few minutes until done.

You don't have to wait for the water to boil before adding the ingredients. Start first with the corn, shuck them and cut into thirds. I had 6 ears of corn and that was plenty. Toss those into the pot.

Then quarter the potatoes and add them to the pot.

Cut a 1-lb. link of smoked sausage into 1/2-thick slices and toss that in.

Cut 1 large onion into big chunks. Add that too.

Quickly peel and roughly chop 1 head of garlic. All in the pot.

Cut 4 tomatoes into big chunks. All in as well.

Then wash 2 large lemons, slice them in half and squeeze the juices into the pot. Toss in the lemon halves, rind and all, too. I used 2 large Meyer lemons that I got from Susan of Open Mouth, Insert Fork.

Toss in 1 stick of butter, 3 tblsp Old Bay seasoning, 1 tblsp Sriracha, and 1 tblsp salt. Taste and adjust if necessary.

By now the pot should be boiling. If not, wait until it is, then check and see if the potatoes have softened to your liking. If they have, then add the shrimp. If you want to make this a seafood boil, then add the cooked crab and crayfish at this point too. The shrimp should turn pink in just a few minutes.

If you don't like to waste perfectly good stock, then don't dump out the liquid. Use a slotted spoon to scoop out everything into a bowl, minus the liquid. Save that and you can use it in lieu of shrimp stock for gumbo or jambalaya. Yes, I'll have those recipes for you.

Or if you're not so thrifty, pour everything into a colander for quick drainage.

Or spread newspapers on the table and pour it all out on top of the newspaper.

Use your hands and dig in! Serve with a Vietnamese dipping sauce of salt, ground black pepper, and lime juice if you wish.


What types of cuisine do you eat each day? Would you consider this a Vietnamese-American dish? What dishes do you think make up American cuisine? Or what dishes are your national cuisine and do you think it reflects your country's heritage?

1 year ago today, a fruit tart that looks like a geometric design at Le Croissant Dore - Westminster (Little Saigon).


  1. The Cajun Vietnamese Shrimp Boil looks and sounds great Thanks for posting that...I think I'm gonna talk some pals into making this in their new home...well... I'll make it but at their house :)

  2. I loved your musings about American food. I was thinking similar thoughts as I drove down Garvey Ave. in El Monte. I got a little goose bump chill as I saw all the thriving Latin and Asian restaurants and markets.

    And I'm thrilled that our Meyers lemons made it into the shrimp dish!

  3. I take issue with Mintz's claim that a national cuisine is one that has to be talked about, eaten and cooked by everyone. I also take issue with the idea that there is no such thing as USA cuisine and that this is because of its ethnic diversity.

    Partially, I take issue with the last because there is a negative inference that can be drawn from it: if you can claim a national dish for a culture, does that then mean that culture is not diverse? Is Mintz *inside* US culture, and therefore able to perceive its diversity and *outside* other cultures and therefore perceives less diversity, or none?

    Yes, pho is quintessentially Viet, and is regularly called up as the Viet national cuisine, but is it? It's a Viet dish, as are ca kho, banh xeo, nem nuong. But they're less popular, less well known among outsiders. And I bet, cooked differently by Viets everywhere. I would expect ca kho with rice is more widely eaten every day, than pho. Or, at least, it is in my family.

    Maybe as an outsider to US, I perceive some foods as quintessentially US. Like hamburgers and hot dogs. Does not mean I expect everyone to eat them!

    I had to check out what a coke float was ... it's a spider!

    The shrimp boil looks great. Might make that for a 'barbie'.

    Australia, too, has a lot of ethnic diversity and its cuisine is also a hodge-podge of those ethnic influences. It has suppressed and fractured indigenous communities and is built largely upon colonisation and waves of migration. Notwithstanding its diversity and the many ethnic influences on its food, there are Aussie national dishes, sometimes called up as a joke, sometimes as a cringe, sometimes both together. Meat pies, vegemite on toast, lamingtons, pavlova. Probably heaps more too, but I can't think of them now. The only one I would have eaten regularly is vegemite on toast (still do in the UK - have not converted to marmite, nosirree) but I would not disclaim the others as not aussie national dishes.

    Oh, and a shrimp would never get chucked on the barbie in Aus. 'Cos we call 'em prawns :-D Good ol' Paul Hogan. Did so much to misrepresent Aussies to the world at large.

  4. oh, and I like the idea of hyphenated Americans. It sounds so exciting. Like you're hyperventilating!

  5. It's an interesting question, WC. When people find out that I "like to cook" they ask what kind of cuisine. I never quite know what to say. Your cajun recipe reminds me of all that Louisiana goodness Sis sent that I've yet to experiment with...

  6. I was on a tour in Manila during my recent visit there, and the tour guide said the Philippines, like America, lacks a "national cuisine" because neither place has a long history of royalty to dictate an eating culture (i'm paraphrasing). It kind of makes sense if you think about it. Places like England and Spain have national cuisines because they have a long history with kings and queens. But the US and Philippines have regional cuisines, but nothing overtly "national". I'm not saying I agree, but it does make sense--kinda sorta. With that said though, did vietnam have royalty to dictate its cuisine?

  7. All the seafood is going to make this soup extra sweet.

  8. oh this is so mouth watering..and those corns if only my hands could reach out i'll finish them off :-)

  9. i love this one pot wonder...

    and i am embarrased never to think too deeply about the root of anything that goes into my tummy...opppsss...

    it makes me one shallow eater, eh?

    this post of yours is an eye opener ^_^

  10. Cringe Schrapnel,
    Ha! Just tell them you want to throw them a housewarming party at their house. ;)

    The Meyer lemons had so much juice that they totally made this dish.

    Love it! I knew you'd have something to say. I did not know Australians called floats, spiders. So I guess that's not American after all? But then hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza had other origins so technically they're not American either. How many people have to eat something and talk about it before it can be considered a cuisine?

    I think the main point is that since America is made up of immigrants, there's not such a cohesive sense of ethnicity so no ethnic or "national" cuisine. That fails to address that food in general, even within one ethnic cuisine, is incredibly diverse. But I think we definitely do have a national cuisine.

    Just say what I say, lots of stuff! Why limit ourselves?

    I would disagree with your tour guide. VN had royalty but I wouldn't say they're responsible for dictating the cuisine. A lot of the small plates and dumpling dishes were influenced from court since the king would be offered hundreds of dishes to sample for each meal. But the average person couldn't eat like that. In fact, the legend of banh chung and banh tet (VNese new year sticky rice cakes) is mainly to show that they're made from humble ingredients that any VNese could acquire.

    And in the case of England, Henry the VIII declared that only royalty was allowed to eat swans. I think I remember that the classes ate by gradations of foods too. Finely sifted flour for the titled, coarse grain for the peasants.

    A lot of dishes arose out of peasant food, which then becomes a part of the cuisine. So I can't see where having a king or queen dictate would establish that.

    It's not a soup. Not sure what to describe a "boil" but I scooped all the stuff and left the liquid in the pot.

    If only you were there! We had so much left over. Especially the corn!

    You do think of the roots of some foods, just maybe not this way. So I'm glad it got you thinking. You're not a shallow eater at all!

  11. Marvin (et al.),

    I would disagree with the tour guide as well.

    Indonesia also had some prominent kingdoms (Srivijaya, Majapahit), but similar to the situation in Vietnam, royalty definitely did not dictate a national cuisine there. If they did, the most famous Indonesian dishes would be nasi gudeg (sweet jackfruit stew), nasi rames (rice with assorted side dishes), nasi tumpeng (tumeric rice arranged in a cone with accompanying side dishes), opor ayam (coconut stew with chicken), all of which are popular in Central Java, which was near the center of power of the Majapahit. But they're not. Instead, the most stereotypical dishes are nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles) [Chinese influence], and sate (which are found in many forms in Southeast Asia).

    Not everything is spicy hot in Indonesia either - in fact, if Javanese royalty had truly dictated cuisine, Indonesian cuisine would presently be characterized as being palm sugar-sweet rather than predominantly spicy.

  12. Ed,
    Thanks for your input. Fascinating stuff since I know very little about Indonesian cuisine.


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