In 1975, Peter Nguyen’s family left Vietnam and traveled a circuitous route, landing wherever church groups and missions offered housing to refugees—Guam, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Texas, Louisiana, and finally Biloxi, Mississippi. Like hundreds of others, they were drawn to the familiarity of fishing. Working as hands or headers, cutters or gutters, families like the Nguyens labored as French, Polish, and Slavic immigrants did before them.
Language barriers and suspicion from the local community made it hard to earn enough to live, much less to realize the dream each father had for his son: owning a boat of his own. But when he was 20, Mr. Nguyen made his father proud. The 1990s brought rich harvests that commanded high prices. Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated piers and boats, and, like many, Mr. Nguyen could not afford to rebuild and fish again. He went to work at the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. Vietnamese fishers make up 70 percent of the state’s shrimp industry, and Mr. Nguyen translates their concerns to the consortium, which is working to maintain Mississippi’s fishing industry.
When it comes to Gulf shrimp, Mr. Nguyen is a true believer. “You won’t get better, sweeter-tasting shrimp anywhere else. You do a recipe with Gulf shrimp and some other shrimp. Same recipe, different shrimp. You see with your own eyes, taste with your own mouth which is better.” This recipe he just “made up” based on memories, and it has become a family favorite.
2 1⁄2 pounds extra colossal Gulf shrimp
(about 10 per pound)
1⁄3 cup palm or granulated sugar
1⁄4 cup fish sauce
1⁄4 cup fresh lime or lemon juice
1⁄4 cup minced fresh Thai basil, mint, or cilantro
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 to 2 Thai chiles, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1. Using a paring knife, cut through the back shell
of each shrimp and remove the dark vein. Run your
forefinger between the shell and flesh of each shrimp,
separating but not removing shell from flesh.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the sugar, fish sauce, lime
juice, basil, oil, garlic, and chiles together until
the sugar is dissolved. Place shrimp and marinade
in a large zipper-top plastic bag. Squeeze out the
air, seal, and shake to coat the shrimp evenly.
Refrigerate for 4 hours, turning the bag every
3. To cook the shrimp, heat a charcoal or gas grill
to high. Remove the shrimp from the marinade.
Grill, turning frequently, for 2 to 3 minutes, until
evenly pink and golden on both sides. Serve,
passing a bowl for the shells at the table.
From ONE BIG TABLE by Molly O’Neill. Copyright © 2010 by Molly O’Neill. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY