Have you ever eating at a Hmong restaurant? Me neither, at least not until recently when I stumbled across not just a restaurant, but a mall targeting the Hmong of the Twin Cities. I’ve been curious about the Hmong people for a while, having suffered through war and hardships and to relocate halfway round the world and develop new communities and build new families. What specifically surprised me, was that given the tropical climate of their homeland they chose to settle in my home state of Minnesota (in droves), second only to California in the United States.
Indeed, St. Paul is home to the largest urban population of Hmong – in the world! What also made me curious is that there seems to be a dearth of Hmong restaurants, I know them to be great gardeners and farmers, and they contribute mightily to the delicious bounty found in the local farmers markets, but I have never knowingly been to a Hmong restaurant, and was very curious to try. I was guessing that the food would be tasty as they were a migrant people starting in China and living in Laos, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand. Just what was I missing?
When I was visiting my family for Thanksgiving, I did a google search to see if I could find a Hmong restaurant or two, and stumbled across something even more interesting; a mall located in St. Paul devoted entirely to all things Hmong. It is housed in a nondescript building, on the outskirts of an industrial park and filled with individual stalls, reminding me very much of a Mexican mercado. The mall appeared to be divided into three sections: small mom and pop stores, farmers market, and prepared food stalls. The small stores sold everything from clothing, spices, kitchen wares, insurance, music, hardware and toys (I’ve probably missed a few).
The farmers market was fairly extensive with fresh citrus, and spices – given it was November in Minnesota, the options were understandably limited, I’d love to go back in the heart of growing season. Then there was the food stands – think two long rows like the hawker stands of Singapore or Hong Kong, but with more emphasis on Vietnamese and Thai cuisines.
We visited the mall the Monday after Thanksgiving, and while not exactly bustling, I saw a constant stream of customers coming into and out of the building. My sense is that it was still being developed, several of the mom and pop stores were vacant, I am not sure how much that can be attributed to the local economy or the relative newness of the mall. The farmers market faired better and the food stalls better yet, with plenty of options.
So the most important question – what to eat?
According to several sources, the staples of a Hmong diet are heavily weighed with rice, noodles, fish, meat vegetables and hot chili sauces. I saw plenty of pho, laab, and papaya salads.
Like other Asian cuisines, steamed rice and noodles are the foundation of Hmong cooking. Compared to Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine, Hmong dishes are straightforward, lacking the sweet-and-sour interplay derived from the fermented bean pastes, fish sauces, and curries favored by other ethnic groups. The Hmong favor the working man spices; salt, pepper, with a dose of fresh herbs to highlight the flavors of the meat and vegetables. Since the Hmong did not typically have ovens, baked goods are not common, and also, interestingly, often no measurement guidelines, most cooks just taste and estimate. As the Hmong migrated they adopted culinary influences of their host countries, which explains the Chinese egg rolls, Thai papaya salad, and American stuffed chicken legs.
Soups: The boiled meat/vegetable/fresh herb formula creates infinite versions of broth-based soups, which tend to be rather mild, with hints of onion, ginger, chiles, and cilantro. Pho was very popular.
Curries: Despite its bold color, the red curry I tried, with chicken, bamboo, and rice noodles, had stronger vegetal flavors than spicy ones. My sister ordered a bowl and it was as tasty as it looked, just the concoction to warm you from the inside.
Greens: Greens could be found served stir-fried with pork bits, or prepared with chile peppers, like a less-pungent kimchi.
Salads: Raw beef salad (laab) may not be an everyday dish, but it was popular at the market. The ground beef (translated as “live meat”) is wrapped into a lettuce leaf to cool its spiciness. I was not brave enough to try the raw been, choosing instead a delicious cooked chicken version which proved incredibly filling and made delicious burrito wraps. They also had plenty of delicious papaya salad, a popular dish in Laos and Thailand, consisted of shredded, unripe papaya used as a vehicle for a tart, fiery dressing.
Sausages: These foot-long sausages tasted like pot sticker or dumpling filling with juicy pork flecked with onion and cilantro. This sausage would give the Polish sausage makers a run for their money.
Roasted meats: Among the ribs, chicken, and beef, which are roasted to take on a chewy texture and ruddy hue. The pork belly options drew my eye, but I showed restraint and vowed I would sample on my next trip.
Desserts: The cornbread and banana-wrapped rice packets seem bland when compared to the liquid desserts, but they proved delicious and feeling and minus the stickiness coating on the teeth. Vendors serve bubble teas and the seemingly ubiquitous tri-color dessert and made from colorful jellies topped with sweet coconut milk and sipped through a straw.
Pieces of bamboo the size of a nunchuck, with tin foil on one end, are traditional desserts. Travelers filled these portable tubes with water and rice and then steamed them over a fire when they stopped for the night.
If you are in St. Paul, and a food lover, which if you are reading this post, I suspect this is the case, make your way over to the Hmong Market and check out a truly unique culinary/cultural opportunity.