217 Como Ave., St. Paul
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.
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:
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.
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.