Thursday, September 1, 2016

Seeking belacan: Rough Sketches of Austin's Asian Communities

Nasi Goreng (Indonesian food). Photo by Kobako. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

A fellow G-plusser and culinary enthusiast from Malaysia posted a beautiful picture of some Nasi Goreng Belacan, which is a Malaysian and/or Indonesian fried rice that uses belacan, a shrimp paste. She posted only a picture, but a fellow commentator, Azlin Bloor, is a cosmopolitan chef who runs a beautiful Web site that should include a recipe for this dish or something like it.

Nasi Goreng (for me, anyway) seems to make an unfortunate inadvertent pun with Nazi Göring (or Goering). Göring was one of the more famously sadistic members of the upper ranks of the Nazis during that sad period in German history.

Azlin says that "If you can't find belacan, dried shrimp, double the amount, makes a suitable substitute. But this is also the Asian variety of dried shrimp. You are looking for the umami flavour."

The mention of belacan reminds me that my Malaysian friend in a recent comment to me wondered whether there are Asian grocery stores here in Austin—if I'm going to cook food like Nasi Goreng Belacan, I'll need to visit an Asian store or two—and I'm happy to say yes, there are many. Austin has for various reasons many Asian communities. For starters, the university has drawn many Asians to study and to teach.
The rooftop of 22 Gia Long Street, Saigon. The scene of Hubert van Es' famous photo from the Fall of Saigon of an Air America Bell 205 (N47004) evacuating Vietnamese on 29 April 1975. The photo location is often incorrectly stated to be the roof of the US Embassy, Saigon. Photo by Mztourist. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
You've probably seen the famous film clips from the fall of Saigon when all those people on the roof of the US Embassy were desperately trying to board helicopters to get away because the North Vietnamese Army, which was then taking over the South to unify the country, would have punished a lot of South Vietnamese. (Though the site of the famous picture isn't the Embassy, I'm still certain that the Embassy rooftop was also a site of evacuation.)

Anyway, that helicopter trip out to a carrier somewhere offshore was the first leg of a long journey for those people. Many Americans, often through their churches, offered sponsorship for the new Vietnamese immigrants. I worked with a man who had swam out to a boat with nothing but his boxers and a .45 pistol to return fire to the people shooting at him to prevent his emigration. 

Inside the vast MT Supermarket.
Austin was one of those places where people made an effort to welcome the newcomers and to furnish them with what they needed because, like my co-worker, they had left their old country with very little. There was a Vietnamese restaurant here called Phô 74—phô is that wonderful Vietnamese noodle soup with all sorts of wonderful garnishes, and I always figured that the number stood for the year of the move.

Much to my delight because I love a diverse range of foods, Asian communities often 
signal their presence in a city with ethnic restaurants—and while families cook for the public, they send their children to school to earn as many higher degrees as they can stand. The first generation are restaurateurs; the second are mathematicians and physicians—OK, I'm hip to the fact that this stereotype of the overachieving Asians is racist and unpopular with Asians, but this seems to be the goal, whether it's achieved or not; there are worse things one could say about a new immigrant group.

We've had Chinese restaurants longer than any other Asian group. The Vietnamese showed up in the mid-1970s. I'm not sure when the Koreans showed up. These days Korea is a great place to live, so I doubt many seek to emigrate, but I know many came after the Korean War. The waitress I mentioned yesterday is typical of her generation—she's as American as I am, speaks English as well as I do, is fully versed in American culture, but she's picked up a good sized Korean vocabulary, if not a fluency, from her parents or grandparents, who were the immigrants after the War.

Most of the Asian communities cluster around Lamar Boulevard, which bisects Austin, running uninterrupted from the south to the north end of the city. Many Asian grocery stores are located on Lamar. Some are Korean. Others Chinese. Most of the stores are small- to medium-sized, but out far North Lamar there is one store, MT Supermarket, that's the size of a large supermarket: it's owned by Vietnamese, and most of its employees are Vietnamese, but the store with its vast collection of products serves all the communities well. I love to walk around in there. The authenticity of the place greets me as I walk through the front door and get hit by the commingling odors of durian fruit and dried fish—a smell that a lot of inexperienced Westerners don't understand, particularly since their stores have no odor at all, but therein lies a cultural difference.

Not too far from MT Supermarket stands a mosque that serves yet another Asian community—Indonesian, perhaps—and not far from there is a small halal market.

Much to my delight, within walking distance (I don't drive very much) there is a Japanese grocery that is growing—they've annexed the space that used to be their neighbor's in the shopping center.

So, being a fan of travel and culture, I'm thrilled by all the options that are available here. I should even be able to find the belacan.
Live catfish at MT Supermarket.
A koi pond at MT Supermarket.