Garlicky, buttery Cajun barbecued shrimp only gets better when it’s influenced by the flavors of Vietnamese cooking. Image source: Flickr CC user John Liu
Remember when the whole Korean taco truck thing blew up about 10 years ago? The two cuisines (Korean and Mexican) were worlds apart, but diners found they were a great match on the plate (and in a tortilla). Now it’s everywhere. I think the same is true of Vietnamese food and Cajun food but no one (that I know of) has run with the idea—yet.
I’ve written about the Cajun-Vietnamese trend before. The two cuisines have proven to be surprisingly compatible--they share a love for chile pepper heat, rice, garlic, and fresh seafood.
If I were ever to open a restaurant or start a food truck that brings these two great cuisines together, of the first things I’d put on the menu is Cajun-style barbecued shrimp--tweaked with a few Vietnamese flourishes. It’s one of my favorite ways to eat shrimp, and what I love about it is that it’s an invitation to play and experiment with flavors and cuisines. The only rule is to make it taste good.
No Grill Required
Barbecued shrimp is a classic New Orleans dish, but the word ‘barbecued’ is a misnomer. The shrimp in this dish are not barbecued at all, but rather basted in a buttery, garlic-spiked sauce. And while it’s definitely a Cajun dish, it’s actually a bit like a classic Vietnamese dish Tom Xao Bo, in which shrimp are mixed with fish sauce and garlic and sauteed in butter, which makes it easy to do what I did, and create a hybrid of the two. The recipe calls for Worchester sauce, a classic American condiment that’s fermented and more than a little similar to the fermented fish sauce that’s a staple of Vietnamese cooking. For that reason I supplement it with a bit of fish sauce.
I also add just a touch of sugar, something that’s not usually in Cajun shrimp recipes, but that the Vietnamese like adding to sauces and marinades. Vietnamese food revolves around the four main flavors: spicy, salty, sour, and sweet, and using each of these flavors in a single dish stimulates all your taste buds for the most interesting and satisfying possible meal. Adding a little brown sugar to your Cajun-Vietnamese shrimp means that the dish checks each of the boxes for flavor and tastes more complex and well-rounded--at least in my opinion.
Layers of Flavor
But I think the real secret to barbecued shrimp is that it’s cooked in the shell. The shells in very fresh shrimp add another layer of umami richness to the dish, an opportunity for flavor that many American cooks throw away when they cook with shrimp. Sauteeing in the shell extracts that little extra bit of deliciousness and makes full use of the shellfish, not to mention that cooking shrimp in the shell tends to keep them moister and make them harder to overcook. I also love this dish with head-on shrimp, a real taste of my boyhood home in Vietnam. Headless or not, the key is to use the freshest shrimp possible. Ordering fresh shrimp online from a reputable vendor who only uses sustainable sources is the way to go.
My recipe is based on one served at Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans, but the Vietnamese ingredients set it apart. The fish sauce plays off the Worchester sauce but adds a subtle depth of flavor, while the vinegar in the Sriracha acts as foil against the richness of the butter and transforms it into something special--but still familiar as barbecue shrimp. It serves four as an entrée or eight as an appetizer.
Vietnamese-Cajun Barbecue Shrimp
Mix together the black pepper, Cajun seasoning, chile peppers, garlic, salt, thyme, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce and sugar. Set aside. Preheat a large cast iron skillet on high, but not smoking. Place shrimp in an even layer in the pan. Pour the oil and spice mixture over the shrimp. Cook for a few minutes until the shrimp turn pink. Reduce heat to medium.
Add the lemon wedges to the pan while squeezing slightly. Add the butter, a few cubes at a time. Once the butter is melted, add Sriracha, mix and remove from heat. Serve immediately with cilantro sprinkled on top with some steamed jasmine rice and a green papaya salad and you’ve got a great, cross-cultural meal.
Quick Papaya Salad
Combine garlic, lime juice, sugar and shrimp in a bowl to mix. Pour over the papaya and serve (I like to let the papaya sit in the dressing for a half hour or so before serving).
Fresh Is Best
Fresh shrimp was a staple in Vietnam where I grew up. It was so abundant I took it for granted. Now ordering online is the best way to get shrimp that’s nearly as fresh as just-caught shrimp. Our shrimp comes from aquaculture operations that use best practices for clean and healthy shrimp, and it gets to you days fresher than what you’ll find at the market—because it never goes to a store. It goes from our dock at Daily Fresh Fish to you.