Tuesday, December 21, 2010

East Meets West in Louisiana



Life's a voyage that's homeward bound.

-Herman Melville

Before moving to Louisiana, I lived in Alaska for six years. In some ways I felt welcome up north, and in other ways I felt like a Vietnamese-American wandering solo in a cold cold world, literally. I remember walking into a newly-opened Vietnamese restaurant in Anchorage on a zero degree afternoon. They sold pho, a hot Vietnamese soup that will cure what ails you. After I paid the bill and thanked the family staff, the proprietor asked me, "Your Vietnamese is still good. You must be visiting from the Lower 48." I explained that I had been living in Alaska for six years already. "How do we not know each other yet?" Truth be told, it was a reasonable question.

I moved to New Orleans six months ago, and though never having lived here before, Louisiana has quickly started to feel familiar. At fist I found the humid heat oppressive, but it didn't take long for my body to adjust, calling upon those sectors of my genetic make-up built for swamp life that had remained dormant during my Arctic years. Like the Vietnamese, Louisianans are foodies, across class boundaries; Just as I've seen a day laborer in Vietnam venomously accuse a street vendor of selling Thai rice with her beef dish, I've also seen a Cajun construction tradesman spit out a piece of boudin made with Uncle Ben's instant rice. Like Vietnam--my family's homeland--and California--my family's home--a good section Louisiana is comprised of coastline, and is dotted with fishermen. And in both Vietnamese and Louisianan cuisine, catfish and shrimp are prominent players; those little dried shrimp my grandma would sprinkle in clear-broth soups? You can pick them up at a local grocer here to toss in your gumbo.

For these and other reasons, it was no surprise when I learned of the Vietnamese community based out of a section of New Orleans appropriately named Village de L'Est. These new immigrants who had already once given up their worldly possessions to hit the high seas in search of America were some of the first New Orleanians to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and were seen watering their lawns within a week afterwards, without any significant assistance from the Federal government. "Just another monsoon to them," was one explanation I heard from a Vietnamese American.

Though not quite the first thought of New Orleans, the Asian presence here is real. So real, in fact, that the mystic subculture of Vietnamese in New Orleans formed the subject of a collection of short stories by Robert Olen Butler in Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. While not nearly as much a tour de force as in California, the presence of the Vietnamese immigrant population in the Big Easy is evident in the couple of strip malls holding court to about thirty Vietnamese restaurants, groceries, and shops. Behind one of those strip malls is a small canal that is chock full of water lilies and lotus flowers grown by these recent immigrants, farmers and fishermen to the core.

I was first made aware of the unlikely connection between Vietnamese and Louisianans by my co-worker Charles, who grew up in Central City, a black neighborhood with a multitude of corner stores and po-boy shops. It was during a work-related discussion of a Vietnamese-owned po-boy shop in the neighborhood when he said emphatically, "Listen, when it comes to po-boys, the Vietnamese community has learned to satisfy the tastes of the black community." I was both stunned and proud; Charles did not know I was Vietnamese at the time he made that assertion. But what he said made sense; in fact, one could argue that the po-boy sandwich of New Orleans is long-lost brethren to the similarly overstuffed banh mi thit sandwich of Southern Vietnam, also made with French bread.

These and other similarities were highlighted for me when my mother came to visit here from California just a few days ago. After first inquiring in her usual manner if I had met any eligible bachelors suitable for marriage and child-rearing, she then asked, "So do you buy Jazzman rice?" My mom delves into the details of the rice scandal consuming the minds and tummies of her and her retired Vietnamese friends in Southern California. "There's a new rice grown here in Louisiana, a white rice but that's better for you than jasmine rice and still tastes good!"

As the basis of flour used in noodles, dough, or simply as is, jasmine rice is the staple of every Vietnamese meal. "It's not as sticky, but because there's less sugar, it's better for older people with diabetes. People have been going crazy for it at home." By home, she is referring to an area in Southern California referred to as Little Saigon because of the quarter million Vietnamese people living there. In a hushed tone, she explained that sales have skyrocketed for Jazzman rice, the genetically engineered brainchild of three first generation Asians who grew up in New Orleans, working in tandem with agricultural scientists from Louisiana State University. The entrepreneurs almost single-handedly funded the start of this new crop in Louisiana, and emblazoned their packaging with an image of Louis Armstrong. With their connections in the Asian restaurant industry in-state, sales were solid from the beginning and continue to soar. The upset in sales of Thai rice in America spurred the Thai government to conduct genetic tests on the Louisiana rice, under a suspicion that it was a violation of a Thai patent. The tests results were negative for Thailand--a big win for the Big Easy grain.

Not long after my mother disclosed this tale we were strolling on some of the narrow streets of the French Quarter, when the local okra man passed us by in his pick-up struck stocked with vegetables of the Southern sort. In a lilt that I swear could be passed for Vietnamese, he crooned "I've got ooooookkkraaaaaa..." Right then my mother was on the phone with my father when she said excitedly, holding up the phone, "Minh, listen, listen! They sell vegetables on the street with that sing-song call just like in Vietnam!"

Eventually I took her to the famous Parkway Bakery for the New Orleans piece de resistance--the almighty po' boy. Between the two of us, we shared an alligator sausage po'boy, fully dressed, a fried catfish po'boy, also fully dressed, and a side of sweet potato fries. We sprinkled all with Crystal tabasco sauce. "So good," she mumbles, in between mouthful chews. "It would be perfect if they had Vietnamese hot sauce. Maybe you should give them a bottle."

She's right, and her suggestion is not a bad one. Will it be long before I see the Vietnamese rooster hot sauce sitting next to the ketchup bottles at Parkway Bakery? When that day arrives, I will know that I am home.


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