Louisiana may have a lock on boiled crawfish, but Houston happens to be home to a variation on that bayou tradition that makes people go cray: Viet-Cajun crawfish, a love child of two Gulf Coast communities whose penchant for highly seasoned aquatic creatures is just one of many things they have in common (fishing culture, rice farming, the French connection). About fifteen years ago, the food courts and strip centers of our state’s multicultural megalopolis became ground zero for Vietnamese eateries offering this distinctive preparation, in which the boiled crustaceans get a bath of butter, a shower of garlic, and a table-side dunking in eater-improvised “cocktail” sauces. Come crawfish season, the plastic-sheathed, paper towel–littered tables of these joints groan under mountains of the disembodied decapods.
Every crawdad chef has his own formula, and the attached recipe makes no claim to satisfy that (mud)bugbear “authenticity.” All I know is that my pot crew and I ended up with a mess of sweet crawfish infused with earthy spices, aromatic citrus, and pungent garlic. We killed an afternoon drinking beer and cracking critters, sucking the piquant brew out of the head and popping off the tails for the nubbin of lobster-like meat. Fusion doesn’t get any more festive than that.
Serves 6 to 10
Note: We cooked 30 pounds in a 30-quart pot in 3 batches. Measurements are loose; customize to your taste.
Rinse the crawfish with fresh water (in a cooler or maybe a kiddie pool) 2 or 3 times, until the water runs clear.
Fill the pot with water, about one-third to halfway up the side (you want just enough to cover the bugs), and turn the heat on high. As the water starts to get warm, throw in 2 or 3 cups of your preferred seafood boil mix, 5 heads of garlic halved horizontally, and 2 sticks of butter. Bring to a boil. If you’re cooking potatoes and corn too, now is the time to put those in, the potatoes first (give them a head start, about 15 minutes) and then the corn. Cover the pot and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the veggies from the pot, sprinkle with a little seasoning if you like, and keep them warm.
Next add 2 or 3 more cups of boil mix, a few handfuls of orange slices, and a couple more sticks of butter. Return to a boil, then dump in a third of your crawfish. Give them a hearty stir, cover the pot, and let cook for 5 to 7 minutes. When they’re done, use a wire-mesh skimmer to scoop them out and dump them into a big cooler. Continue with the next two batches. Meanwhile, make your “Cajun beurre blanc” by mixing a lot of melted butter and chopped garlic with some combination of any or all of the following ingredients: Old Bay, Cajun seasoning, lemon pepper, paprika, cayenne, hot sauce. Serve restaurant-style—shake about half a cup of the butter sauce and a few handfuls of crawfish in a plastic bag—or just toss some crawfish and sauce together in stainless-steel bowls.
Popular condiment combos include a mix of mayo, cayenne, and ketchup; lemon juice and cayenne; and salt, pepper, and lime juice (muô´i tiêu chanh).