Hmong market Is a Rare Food Adventure

International Marketplace quietly offers cuisine treats

Soups: The boiled meat/vegetable/fresh herb formula seems to create an infinite number of broth-based soups, which tend to be rather mild, with hints of onion, ginger, chiles, and cilantro. Of the two I liked best, one contained ground pork and rattan palm (the soft strips taste like hearts of palm), and the other greens, ground beef, and tripe (cow's stomach, cooked into a soft, chewy sponge).

Curries: Despite its bold color, the red curry I tried, with chicken, bamboo, and rice noodles, had stronger vegetal flavors than spicy ones, and it was prettily garnished with lettuce and bits of banana flower.

Greens: Some vendors serve greens stir-fried with bits of pork, others prepare them the way elders prefer them, pickled with chile peppers, like a less-pungent kimchi.

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

Salads: Raw beef salad, or laab, Lo explained, isn't an everyday dish. The ground beef (which Lo kept translating as "live meat") is wrapped into a lettuce leaf to cool its hot, dusty spices. Papaya salad, a popular dish in Laos and Thailand, is made to order, with shredded, unripe papaya used as a vehicle for a tart, fiery dressing.

Sausages: These foot-long sausages, sold at nearly every stand, taste like pot sticker or dumpling filling: juicy pork flecked with onion and cilantro.

Roasted meats: Among the ribs, chicken, and beef, which are roasted to take on a chewy texture and ruddy hue, I dubbed my favorite "Paul Bunyan's bacon": thick strips of pork belly with a crackled exterior that's kissed with smoky flavor.

Offal: The chitlins, or pork intestine, were the best I've ever had (admittedly, that isn't saying much). They had the texture of thick, rubbery poultry skin, and the addition of cilantro helped boost the flavor. The beef tendons, which look like translucent, gelatinous globs, are rather like chunks of beef-flavored Jell-O. I found them pleasantly gummy, with a creamy mouthfeel akin to dense bone marrow.

Desserts: The cornbread and banana-wrapped rice packets seem bland when compared to the liquid desserts. Vendors serve bubble teas (fruity drinks with knobby tapioca balls) and their flamboyant cousin, called tri-color dessert and made from colorful jellies (they look almost like fluorescent eggs and tadpoles) topped with sweet coconut milk and sipped through a straw.

As Lo and I perused the packaged foods—beige lumps of homemade tofu, sticky rice shaped into albino sausages—he picked up a piece of bamboo the size of a nunchuck, with a tinfoil cap on one end. "Have you ever seen this?" he asked. Traditionally, travelers filled these portable tubes with water and rice and then steamed them over a fire when they stopped for the night.

The vendor cracked the bamboo open and handed me the tube. I chewed the sweet, gummy rice and was reminded of just how far the Hmong have traveled. 

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