Southern Comfort, a la Uncle Ray

Uncle Ray’s Crawfish Tacos

"New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin." – Mark Twain, 1884

What city would you be from if you got excited at the thought of a hurricane, you could buy cocktails without getting out of your car, and you liked your rice as dirty as your politicians?

Ah, New Orleans. When the weather gets warm I can’t help but reminisce about this city I once called home. In what seems like another lifetime of mine I was a local in the Big Easy, my fascination with all things Cajun having motivated me to wrangle a scholarship to attend university there. It certainly didn’t disappoint in terms of sheer strangeness. It also ended up being a little more than I’d bargained for.

My excitement at living in the place where everyone was constantly ‘laissez-ing les bon temps rouler‘ was quickly tempered by the realization that New Orleans is a difficult place to live, in every sense of the word. For six months of the year the weather is punishingly hot, and for the other six the tourists come so thick and fast you can’t step sideways without tripping over one. Cockroaches as big as domestic cats threaten your sanity, while endless hurricanes and floods inevitably seal the deal. The threat of crime haunts your every step and poverty assaults your senses from all sides, the vast derelict shantytowns never more than a step in the wrong direction from the small oases of affluence. New Orleans is also flat, which I found particularly difficult to bear – no lofty mountains framing the horizon, not even a hill to break the monotony, just an endless expanse of concrete and swampland unfolding as far as the eye can see. I can honestly say that if it weren’t for the food, I probably wouldn’t have lasted.

Luckily the food makes putting up with all the rest worthwhile. The first thing that strikes you is that no matter how hard you try, you can’t get a bad meal in New Orleans. Local cooks seem to have been born with good taste coursing through their veins. Whether it’s Cajun (from the rural French Acadians who settled here in the early 18th century) or Creole (from the cosmopolitan city-dwellers who subsequently combined French, Spanish, African and Caribbean influences in their cooking), things like blackened catfish, oyster po-boys, shrimp etouffee, jambalaya, chicken sausage gumbo, lobster bisque and dirty rice have to be tasted to be believed. Just don’t ask a local what the difference is between the two styles of cooking – whoever you ask will have the one definitive opinion, and you’ll spend the next half hour or so being indoctrinated into their view of things. Just bathe yourself in the spicy, pungent, savory and complex food, which has been assembled from the best of everyone who’s lived there and emerged as a cuisine a hundred times better than the sum of its parts. As you can imagine, I was soon in heaven.

Nevertheless, there was one Louisiana delicacy I vehemently resisted sampling. Crawfish, known to most of the world as crayfish, happen to also be known in the south as crawdads and – and here you’ll begin to understand my problem – mudbugs. They look like small lobsters and live in muddy, brackish waters such as swamps, estuaries and the enormous bayous of southern Louisiana. Unlike shrimp, crab and lobster, which are just as often encountered shelled, peeled, and therefore harmless, crawfish seemed to appear everywhere as part of a ‘boil’, in steaming brick-red heaps of spindly legs, antennae and bulbous black eyes. I can’t tell you how many times I was given sympathetic if uncomprehending looks at these events from people up to their elbows in fishy-smelling crawfish debris, chins dripping with orange crawfish fat as they sucked the last drops from the decapitated heads (which is de rigeur, by the way) while they asked me why on earth I didn’t partake. I didn’t have much of an answer apart from my sheer revulsion at the prospect of eating something so unashamedly insectoid.

I may have never realized what I was missing if during my final year a small cafe and takeout place hadn’t opened just a few blocks from where I lived. The place was called Kokopelli’s, and it served the hungry local student population with cheap yet sophisticated tacos and burritos. I had eaten there several times, enjoying their fusion creations like Indian vegetable-curry burritos with mango chutney and goat cheese, when I realized they had a few local flavors on their menu, including one immensely popular item called ‘Uncle Ray’s Crawfish Tacos’. It was so popular they regularly sold out of it, which was my first clue, but what finally convinced me to try it was the fact that there was no peeling or decapitating involved, just little pink curls of crawfish meat piled high on crispy corn shells. Curiosity finally getting the better of squeamishness, I tried it, and before I had taken my second bite, I was caught, hook, line and sinker.

Uncle Ray (bless him, wherever he may be) knew how to make one fine taco. Fat succulent crawfish tails had been quickly fried with garlic, chili and cilantro before being layered on the shells with diced red onion, grated sharp white cheddar and sour cream, and liberally doused with a sweet and tangy balsamic vinaigrette. The combination of flavors was like nothing I had ever had before – it was fishy, spicy, tangy, crispy taco nirvana. I also finally understood what all the fuss around crawfish was about. Softer and sweeter than shrimp, they have an intense briny seafood flavor, somewhat like lobster but to my tastebuds even better. What’s more, since they are born and bred in the bayous, they spend very little time in transit to New Orleanians’ plates and boast an incredible freshness and succulence that is hard to find in most commercial seafood. By the time that first taco had been inhaled, I had decided to make up for lost time.

Without batting an eyelid I quickly graduated up to eating crawfish at a boil. You might even say I went on a boil rampage, inviting myself to friends’ of friends backyard parties and eating my way through their crawfish provisions with astonishing gusto. I found out what a great pleasure it is to mercilessly twist apart the spiny heads and bodies and suck out the fishy, fatty juices myself, perhaps even casting sympathetic looks to the new arrivals who eyed the whole ritual with barely contained nausea. I became known as the insatiable crawfish fiend, to the obvious amusement of everyone who had been trying to sneak them onto my plate for years. My zeal was particularly heightened by the knowledge that I had waited too long, and the presence of this abundant delicacy in my life was short-lived, my time in the South being nearly up.

When I finally left Louisiana it was without much regret, as I was exhausted and battle-weary from all the discomforts of living there. The one thing that made me turn back at the airport for one last wistful glance at the city was the thought of all those crawfish I still hadn’t eaten. I knew I would certainly be able to find them in other places, but probably never in their natural state like I had learned to love them, fresh and squirming and ready to be boiled, twisted and sucked. But really that’s okay, since it gives me something to look forward to when one day I venture back. In the meantime, I can always dig up what I need to make Uncle Ray’s crawfish tacos. And for these there’s no head sucking

Uncle Ray’s Crawfish Tacos
Adapted from memories of Kokopelli’s in New Orleans
Serves 4

For crawfish:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds crawfish tails
2/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro/coriander
1/2 teaspoon (or more) cayenne pepper (alternatively you can use a good hot sauce – I like habañero)
1/2 lemon

For vinaigrette:
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
salt and pepper to taste

For tacos:
1 red onion, diced
1/2 lb sharp white cheddar, grated
1 1/2 cups sour cream
extra chopped cilantro, for garnish
taco shells, heated in a 250F/125C oven for about 10 minutes (I usually do 4 per person, but you can do more!)

Heat a large frying pan over high heat until very hot. Add half the butter and olive oil and swirl it around. Add half the garlic, stir once or twice, and quickly dump in half the crawfish tails. Sprinkle on half the cayenne pepper. Toss the tails in the pan for about a minute, until they are very fragrant and most of the liquid has evaporated, then quickly stir in half the cilantro, some salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon. Toss once more, then transfer to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining crawfish tails.

For the vinaigrette, combine the ingredients and whisk together until emulsified. Whisk again before serving.

To assemble the tacos, put a layer of crawfish, sprinkle on some onions and cheese, and drizzle with a spoonful of the vinaigrette. Top with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkle with a little additional cilantro. Eat quickly with lots of napkins and a cold beer.

Note: you can easily substitute shrimp for the crawfish, though I would urge you to do your best to get ahold of crawfish, as that’s what makes this dish really spectacular.