Hmong market Is a Rare Food Adventure

International Marketplace quietly offers cuisine treats

INTERNATIONAL MARKETPLACE
217 Como Ave., St. Paul
651.487.3700

Behind a tall fence on a busy St. Paul street sits a small parcel of land that feels a long way from Minnesota. From the potholed parking lot of the International Marketplace its cluster of warehouses, tents, and open-air sheds seems rather unremarkable. But inside, the tropical produce, colorful Hmong costumes, Asian music videos, and scent of spicy food make the market seem almost indistinguishable from those halfway around the world.

On weekends, especially, the market's aisles are packed as densely as the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. There are piles of pastel padded bras and rows of smiling Buddhas. There are soup bowls, bedding, and cooking utensils; backpacks, tiger balm, and sandals; ginseng, arcade games, and gold-colored jewelry. And at the far end of the west building there's a food court where vendors ladle up murky brown soups and bright orange curries. Diners point to the prawns, sausages, and chicken wings displayed behind plastic shields, passing dollar bills and speaking in Hmong. Curious Caucasians are as scarce as spoken English.

Asia without airfare: Inside the market's humble exterior, the bustling food court is like a trip to a foreign country
Alma Guzman
Asia without airfare: Inside the market's humble exterior, the bustling food court is like a trip to a foreign country
Alma Guzman

Location Info

Map

International Marketplace

217 Como Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55103

Category: Community Venues

Region: Como

You can hardly throw a handful of rice in the Twin Cities these days without hitting an Asian restaurant or grocery shop. Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese eateries are becoming as common as burger and pizza joints. Yet Hmong cuisine has been conspicuously absent in this proliferation, especially considering that the Hmong make up the largest Asian group in the state, at about 30 percent. Besides a St. Paul restaurant (Queen Asia at 1394 Jackson St.), cafeteria (Foodsmart at 544 University Ave. W.), and another small market (Golden Globe at 630 Pierce Butler Route), there aren't many places serving Hmong food.

The Minneapolis Public Library's Asian cookbook collection reflects this paucity, containing just two slim pamphlets on Hmong cookery, nearly hidden among the glossy tomes that describe the cuisine of other Southeast Asians with full-page photos of saffron-robed monks, rice paddies, and meticulously styled stir fries.

The elusive nature of local Hmong cuisine makes sense in the context of the group's history. Having spent recent generations fleeing persecution, the Hmong haven't had the luxury of developing or documenting their cuisine the way other groups have. After conflicts with the Chinese government, beginning in the 18th century, the Hmong migrated en masse from their homeland to Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. But for many, it wasn't a permanent resettlement.

Like a lot of Hmong in America, Nai Christopher Lo, the outreach and youth coordinator at the Hmong Cultural Center, came to Minnesota from a Thai refugee camp. He'd lived there for about a year, in the mid-1980s, after his family was forced to flee Laos due to his father's support of Hmong guerrilla fighters who helped the Americans during the Vietnam War. Today, dressed in a dark suit and crisp blue shirt, with a short haircut and wire-rimmed glasses, Lo seems worlds away from his youth facing armed Lao soldiers, running for his life, and hiding in the jungle.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Lo gave me a tour of the International Marketplace, where he recognized and greeted what seemed like every third person. When he arrived in Minnesota, Lo faced many challenges of assimilation, some of them culinary. He recalled a time in grade school when his classmates found out that Hmong people in Laos commonly ate meat from snakes and squirrels. "They said, 'Ew, why would you do that?'" Lo remembers. "But Hmong people had never seen humans drink milk from a cow, and we said, 'Ew.'"

Unaccustomed to refrigeration, the Hmong eat mostly fresh foods, and the far end of the east building teems with tropical produce. One vendor offered us slices from a yellow pomelo citrus, nearly the size of a soccer ball, which tasted like sweet grapefruit. Another vendor peeled back the papery brown wrapper of a longan fruit and let me sample its juicy, grape-like flesh. The market is one of the few local places to sell mangosteen: purplish, fist-size fruits sold in $20 bundles, a price that reflects their unparalleled sweet-tart flavor. Lo pointed out a table of greens and explained that the most common Hmong meal is a soup of boiled meat (typically pork, beef, or chicken) with vegetables and herbs. Thai eggplant, bitter melon, and chayote are also used in Hmong cooking, along with fresh garlic, ginger, green onions, lemongrass, and cilantro.

When Lo and I entered the food court, two women stood over large wooden bowls, mashing limes and tomatoes with massive pestles. Another cook hacked apart a whole chicken with swift swings of a knife, while her co-worker swung open the door of a meat smoker to reveal hanging racks of meat and poultry.

As with other Asian cuisines, steamed rice forms the foundation of Hmong cooking. But compared to Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine, Hmong dishes tend to be more straightforward, lacking the sweet-and-sour interplay derived from the fermented bean pastes, fish sauces, and curries favored by other groups. The Hmong tend to season more with salt, pepper, and fresh herbs to highlight, not mask, the pure flavors of the meat and vegetables. Since the Hmong did not typically have ovens, baking isn't part of their cuisine, and there are no measurement guidelines, Lo says—most cooks just taste and estimate. As they've migrated, the Hmong have adopted culinary influences of their host countries, which explains the offerings like Chinese egg rolls, Thai papaya salad, and Americanized stuffed chicken legs. With thanks to Lo and several helpful vendors and diners, here's what to expect from some of the more traditional items:

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