Asian/Cajun Crawfish, the Cultural Anthropology of Food

I grew up inland, a military brat/Latina who toggled her adolescence between the borderlands of Texas and the community surrounding one of the largest military bases in the U.S.  As a result, I did not grow up eating seafood; I discovered the glorious riches of the salted and fresh waters later in my adult life.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was a slow dancer when it came to appreciating the many delicacies of the water, so it was a surprised me to learn how much I enjoyed eating a mudbug like a crawfish.

My love of crawfish keeps growing too, this is due in part to my discovery of Asian-Cajun crawfish on a recent food safari through Houston’s Chinatown, home to the third largest Southeast Asian population in the US. My friend Jenny Wang (aka imneverfull) took me on a tour of some of the best places to sample this newish food phenomenon. These places were everywhere; we stayed within a single section of Houston, but were still able to go to eight places in one day – and we only scratched the surface.

Getting ready to eat crawfish, some diners use plastic bag as bibs

The traditional Cajun way of making crawfish is to boil them with Crab Boil Seasoning and adding potatoes and corn before serving with generous amounts of Tony Chachere’s.

Within the last decade, Vietnamese immigrants working in the crawfish industry in Louisiana saw how the Cajun culture made crawfish, and they were inspired. They brought incredible Vietnamese flavor combinations and French influences to the basic Cajun style of boiling crawfish and took it to another level entirely.

Their boils begin with a mix of spices from the east, combined with butter, garlic, spicy chilies and other secret ingredients (the competition is so fierce amongst these eateries that they rarely share information about their ingredients).  The resulting flavors are special, rich with depth and intensity.  From salty to tangy lemon, followed by luscious butter and then intense heat. Wow! So addictive.

The the demand and craze for this delicacy has taken off too. The trend has migrated to a few large Vietnamese communities in the country. In 2008, California’s Orange Country and the surrounding area started seeing a crop of these Asian Cajun crawfish eateries.

This evolution in cooking crawfish is such an interesting cultural study that I just had to blog about it. It tells a story about human migration, and it teaches us about history while at the same time revealing something about social anthropology and culture in a world that is constantly changing. This is what I love about food culture, why I’m so drawn to photographing it. To me, that is something to get excited about.

Men play xiangqi in the food court at the Hong Kong City Mall in Houston where on weekends crowds gather to eat asian crawfish

Asian Cajun crawfish served in plastic backs filled with seasonings and spices then poured onto a plastic table covering

Asian Cajun crawfish covered in butter and various seasonings

 

Where I went:

Crawfish & Beignets

Hanks Crawfish

Jolynn’s Crawfish

The Cajun Family

French Quarter

Swampy’s

Crawfish and noodle

Boiling Crab

Seafood Shoppe

88 Comments

Filed under Asia, assignments, Favorite Places, food culture, food history, Houston, International Assignments, Texas, Vietnam

88 Responses to Asian/Cajun Crawfish, the Cultural Anthropology of Food

  1. Loved every bite of this – literally! I grew up as an Army brat myself (French Air Force) and can relate to feeling estranged to the “normal” world then discovered crawfish when I moved here. Still discovering it!
    So many great ways to enjoy it!

  2. Delicious words and photographs. Can you believe I’ve never peeled crawfish? I’ve eaten it in dishes (gumbo, etc.), but never had it whole and steamed. Based on this, I’m hella missing out.

  3. Joy

    This is awesome. I’m from Corpus Christi, and I consider that “the borderlands” — but also right on the Gulf of Mexico where seafood is plentiful. I have loved the new influx of Vietnamese restaurants in South Texas, too. (But no, in El Paso, there is no good seafood!)

  4. ooooh…if there was one food that I crave – desperately crave- it’s crawfish. I love crawfish more than lobster or any type of seafood! Though uni is just right behind.

    Headed to LA end of week, will definitely hit up Asian Cajun food!

    btw, the men are playing a Chinese chess game called xiangqi, not mah jong. I remember as a kid learning how to play…it’s been a long long time!

  5. syd

    Yum! It’s prime season for them over here in my neck of the woods. I know what I’m having this weekend.

  6. great photo’s makes you want to go to New Orleans and suck the heads!

  7. Joy

    This is awesome. Im from Corpus Christi, and I consider that the borderlands but also right on the Gulf of Mexico where seafood is plentiful. I have loved the new influx of Vietnamese restaurants in South Texas, too. (But no, in El Paso, there is no good seafood!)

  8. That looks so unbelievably good. My kind of dining – no fuss, mega flavour. Your photography is brilliant too.

  9. mimi

    Great photos!

  10. i love hearing about the evolution of food. this is definitely something i’d love to try some day.

  11. Those are a heck lot of prawns! They sure look very spicy, and i just love the way they eat it, just dig in, rip them apart, dunk in butter, and just bite :D

  12. great photo! The evolution of food is so interesting. These asian cajun crawfish are a great example of that- good post. Wish I had one near me :-)

  13. Hm, it’s look yummy. Great post.

  14. I don’t think I’ve ever really had crawfish before but that sure makes me want to eat some!

  15. it looks yummyyyyyy!!!!

  16. It’ yummy! I want to eat that.

  17. Thanks for the post and great pics. Born and raised deep in Cajun country (Vermillion and Lafayette Parish actually). A few comments. The traditional cajun boil includes corn, potatoes, onions, lots of lemons, and some put butter (soften the shells a bit). Lately I have had sausage, celery, and mushrooms added as well. Add this all together with the seasoning and boil prior to adding the crawfish. Absolutely do not sprinkle seasoning after they are taken out of the boil (restaurants add this when they offer different spice levels, but all you get is a big mess when trying to peal them). Here we have one level HOT, but not so spicy that cannot taste each of the flavors. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

  18. Also, you need to make it down to Lafayette Louisiana for Festival International de Louisiane 2010 on 04/21 – 04/25 for the true Cajun experience. Good Food/Music/Culture For more info:

    http://www.festivalinternational.com

  19. Sopyan

    Yess thnk’s!!!

  20. How do you eat these though? Do they peel easily like a shrimp or do you have to crack the shells more like lobster? They look really good though!

  21. O my. This looks absolutely fabulous. Thanks for the post.

  22. wow! dis is great, look so yummy photos are really so attractive… if u come to manila, try to drop by at our branches… kudos!

  23. Oh my, I’m sitting here drooling!! And the pictures make it even worse!!I join you in a love of seafood and now that I live in Spain not far from the coast, I can indulge to my heart’s content.

  24. this is simply amazing. from the unexpected story to that vibrant color. it’s almost like the food is jumping out of the image. that color! brilliant!

  25. neilsharp

    excellent story and pics of some great-looking seafood. being from n.e. pennsylvania, never have tried this. if it is any taste like lobster, i’m already hungry!

  26. Sometimes local food is not approachable but this one is definitely something many people can appreciate. In Spain barnacle (those things attached to sea rocks that look hands of turtles) is a delicacy and relatively expensive at a restaurant. sikdang (espardena – a kind of sea verm) is a delicacy in Spain and in Japan. They are indeed tasty but look something else.
    Instead this looks much easier to give a go even if you have never tried crawfish.
    I have never tried crawfish in the way that looks so delicious. I think I have been eating sandwiches only with boiled ones and rocket at Pret A Manger (a chain sandwich shop) in the UK. I think they are claiming that is a kind of prawn.
    I hope I’ll have a chance to experience this spectacular cuisine in the near future.

  27. great writing style! love your blog!

  28. rose

    Thank you–I really enjoy your writing and yummy photos. Now, I’m hungry!

  29. I think that travel and dining broadens my perspective. I agree that each culture adds its own mark to our cuisine. Thank you for this excellent article.

  30. tastyeatsathome

    Next time I’m in Houston, I’m DEFINITELY seeking out one – or eight – crawfish places! This makes me hungry. Great photos.

  31. I agree with Steven I live near Lafayette and am Cajun, also! We grew up on Crawfish! It’s great to know that others are finally experiencing it.
    Yes, come down and “eat Lafayette”. But I am warning you…..You may never want to leave!

  32. I had no idea this was happening in texas. very cool. i live in south louisiana and have grown up on boiled crawfish. those look very tasty.

  33. That looks DELICIOUS! I’ll have to make a trip to Houston one of these days

  34. ed edmundson

    Quick question… your talking about how to prepare them right. When I first saw this I thought u were referring to imported Chinese crawfish… which are awful. There is nothing that compares to fresh Louisiana crawfish. I’m from Lafayette, LA and I like my crawfish the traditional Cajun boiled way… but would try these… once. The key thing is that if you’re eating crawfish… anywhere… you have to ask… are these fresh from Louisiana… or they frozen from China. You can easily taste the difference… but it’s good to ask, so if they are from China, the restaurant may consider spending a little extra and getting the good stuff next time. Enjoyed reading your post and will be back soon… take care… ed–

  35. Glad to meet another group of crawfish mudbugs, & great post, Penny! Wanted to share my experience with you & the gang”

    I started a crawfish restaurant in Orange County, California, by the name of The Cajun Corner, in 2005 while the trend was heating up with the wildly-popular Boiling Crab restaurant here. With their 3-4 hour waiting times at times and my partner’s amazing cooking ability, we thought we could share the Little Saigon market, create a different taste to the delicacy, and we did so very successfully for 3 years. Although we were profitable since year 1, we had partnership problems and had to split up. Since then I’ve been consulting restaurant chains on operations, growth and franchising. The restuarant is still in operation!

    There are so many ways to cook these puppies – err, crawdads!

  36. that’s a lot of seafood! This fusion experience remains me of Bánh Mì.

  37. Damn that’s a lot of food. Sheesh. Now when I go out to eat seafood, I will always be disappointed at the portions. :D

  38. Keren

    That’s so mouthwatering, ahh..give me one, I like eating this. Usually here in my country we add soda’s like sprite or 7up and then the spices because it adds more flavor to the craw-fish.

  39. Miz Dee

    I enjoyed reading your post very much. especially the cultural differences which result in various recipes and ways of eating.

    I live in Singapore and discovered Crawfish 15 yr ago, on a trip to Houston, I had them again in Australia (where they’re called Yabbies). In both these places the Crawfish was plain boiled and eaten with butter or plain.

    the best Crawfish i’ve eaten have been in Shanghai – there they’re boiled in a ‘ma la’ (spicy Sichuan pepper) stock and served with a blak vinegar dip – spectacular!

    In Malaysia, I had a dish of crawfish noodles – also pretty good. but nothing i’ve had beat Shanghai though :)

  40. spiced and seasoned crawfish is the best way to go. Nothing like sitting on a wood bench with a pile of steaming crawfish, potatoes, and corn on newspaper covered table and a plastic bib around your neck. Guaranteed Good Times…great post, it makes me hungry and nostalgic.

  41. Looks good to eat, a very delicious food.

  42. michael zinn

    Thanks for wonderful photo’s and wonderful story.

    Reminds me of a dinner my baby sister took me to near Opelousas, La.

    Each plate was piled high with crayfish and could have easily fed two or three people.

    We look forward to more of your culinary exploration.

  43. jimijam

    I loves my crawfish too and am also from the heartland of crawfish country good Ol’ south Louisiana,Baton Rouge.I grew up eating crawfish,we usally caught our own,purged them and boiled them and we all know what’s next.Pinch them tails and suck them heads and there are also a lot of geart crawfish dishes.Ettouffe has to be my all time favorite.I went to buy some last weekend but they were too small and way too high priced right now,3.99 lb.boiled and $16.00 lb.peeled tails.We had a late start on the season due to cold weather,but it is supposed to last longer than usual, into August.Might just wait a little while until they get bigger and cheaper.Jimijam says indulge,enjoy and Laissez Cest Le Bon Temps Roulet from the great state of Louisiana!!!!

  44. jimijam

    At first I thought you were talking about the frozen Chinese crawfish until i got into your blog,which is great.I have heard of the asian twist on them and really want to try them that way and i also think that the cultural exchange is great for everyone!!

  45. Wow. I think you would love my culinary road trip project: SipSnapSavor.Net

    coincidentally, are you teaching any more classes in the Bay Area in the next month or two?
    Cheers!

  46. This was really interesting since here in Sweden we have a holiday to celebrate the crawfish. I’ve always found the way the Swedes cook their crawfish a bit… meh. Just loads of salt and loads of dill. Unfortunately supermarkets don’t sell uncooked crawfish but I recently discovered a fish shop that does sell them live.

  47. wow, looks amazing! isn´t it great to discover other “worlds” in our own city? specially through food?
    great blog!

  48. carmine giargiari

    mangia

  49. kathryncoulibaly

    This is such a great piece and I loved the pictures. Crawfish have NEVER appealed to me but you really sold it with this one.

    I loved the Vietnamese/French connection. I just blogged about an Asian Culture cooking class I took that included Vietnamese food on my blog, http://www.kidculture.wordpress.com, and the chef-instructor raved about Vietnamese food and its French influences.

    Thanks!

  50. I’m so afraid of eating crawfish lol

  51. Pingback: Asian-Cajun « Contra Optimates

  52. love the photos too! thank you wery much

  53. I am really the great worker of the food. While considering all the food I give preverence to the crawfish.

  54. man I have yet to try out the Boiling Crab here in SO CAL but after seeing this i am going this weekend great article I am vietnamese myself and I’ve seen so many crawfish places around but havent had any time to try it out

  55. Lovely pics. Looks like seafood heaven. Wish they had places like that over here. Great article.

  56. That looks so good. I could go for that right now.

  57. yum, i want some of those!

  58. just looking at it makes me hungry!

  59. My husband is from Louisiana and when I first met his family we had a cook out and crawfish was one of the main foods. After watching them eat the crawfish I couldnt see myself eating anything like it.

  60. I have NEVER understood the allure of eating bugs from the water! Craw fish take too long to eat, and only taste like the spices they’re cooked in. Why not just eat the spices without hassling yourself with the bugs?

    I know I’m in the minority on this…but I think there’s a bit of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” phenomenon going on with craw fish eating. I think people like to eat them because they think they’re supposed to.

    Great post! Great pics. Thanks!

  61. Very interesting. I would not dare touch this dish though lol.

  62. Thanks for great post and pics! I now know what I will be going looking for when next I am some with like Vancouver. I wonder whether it has hit the Southeast Asian crowd there yet or whether I will have to make a trip to the States!

  63. Being the parents of Asian immigrants, I love seeing them interacting outside of their ethnic niche and expanding into the community. Call me Americanized, but is that not where I live?

  64. they sound amazing, i love crawfish

  65. Penny! Fabulous post. I cannot wait to try all of these places. I love crawfish, dahhlin!

  66. Thu-Lynn

    Awesome post! There is definitely an increase in popularity of crawfish since I’ve lived in Houston. There are so many variations on how to cook it. Be sure to check out the crawfish festival in Houston, if you’ve never been.

    Cheers!

    PS. That’s really cool. I know those 2 guys in that picture you ate crawfish with. Small world!

  67. Very interesting. I’m always intrigued when one culture creates their own version of another culture’s traditional dish/food. Although personally I don’t have the patience to eat food that requires peeling off/breaking shells.

    It reminds me of the Korean taco (Kogi) as well as the Chinese version of a shawarma bbq meat sandwich (RouJiaMo). I’ve never eaten the former though.

  68. Fantastic pictures! Makes me want to jump into the page and eat them!

  69. Dave C

    Living in Houston, I’d really like to know which of these places served great rather than good food. For those of you that haven’t cooked crawfish, that’s what the side burner on your grill is for! Basic recipe is new potatos, corn on the cob, Old Bay seasoning or Cajun, and cayanne pepper. Boil all the ingredients, then add the crawfish last for 10 minutes.

    If you break the shell just a bit up from the the end of the tail, it’s easier to get the meat out. In Houston, HEB sells them raw for about $3 a pound, or fresh cooked are available on the weekends.

    In far east Texas and Louisiana, they grow them in flooded rice fields during the off season.

  70. wow It looks yum. Crawfish is good.

  71. God, that definitely bringing up my appetite.
    Nice pics!

  72. Great read and I’m dying to get my hands on some crawfish now.

  73. Preciosas fotos y en sí todo el blog ¡Felicidades! En México esa langosta es conocida como “acocil” y se vende en los mercados ya preparada, hervida, con cebolla, cilantro y un poco de chile serrano, todo finamente picado, es, como se ve en la foto, una delicia. Saludos

  74. Adrian

    I just discovered your blog.I’m very happy.

  75. HA what a small world, the kid in the blue with the plastic bag bib is my friend Eric. I love the Chinatown in Houston, the restaurants just keep growing and growing every time I go back. Great post and pictures as always Penny!

  76. Susan

    Hi, can’t believe I haven’t discovered your blog before now. What a glorious eyeful!

    A very belated comment: In early August Swedes have traditional crayfish parties marking the end of summer. Traditionally it was an all-night affair, involving fishing the crayfish after dark by lamp or flashlight, steaming them with dill, and feasting, all washed down with schnapps. Now folks just buy them, often imported from Louisiana or China. IKEA has an annual all-you-can-east crayfish feast. At the Brooklyn store this year at least half of the feasters were Asian, all very hungry and highly skilled at extracting the succulent meat.

  77. The crawfish is really delicious and it seems it will never change. More and more people liking it.

  78. I wish i could taste one of these one day. They seem so delcious

  79. O.K., I am recently moved to Houston, an army brat, cajun “tru and tru” and I didn’t know about this existence of crawfish in China Town. My northern raised kids are horrified but now I can’t wait to sneak away with my husband…

  80. Yum! It’s prime season for them over here in my neck of the woods. I know what I’m having this weekend.

  81. and the inner pain of a very sympathetic