Tim Kwj is big and gregarious with a face round and bright and open like a full moon, and he never tires of breathlessly teaching about his culture. He's Hmong, and also Minnesotan — along with over 60,000 other Hmong who either settled or were born here in St. Paul, home to more Hmong than any other city in the U.S.
Beyond his informal role as cultural ambassador, Kwj (pronounced "Goo") is a chef at the Minneapolis Club under Hakan Lundberg, noted Swedish chef who formerly cooked for big-time Swedish chef Marcus Samuelson at Minneapolis's now defunct Aquavit. Together, along with Lundberg, Kwj and I stroll the stalls of Hmong Village Shopping Center, the second massive indoor marketplace of its kind in St. Paul. Here hundreds of vendors congregate under one roof to sell seemingly everything under the sun, but most notably food — all kinds of it, much of it utterly unidentifiable to the untrained eye.
Something you can't help but notice as you stroll past these stalls are the copious animal parts: big ones, little ones, squiggly ones, gelatinous ones, crispy ones, delicious ones, and, well, acquired taste ones.
Kwj points out a white, tubular coil. "That's sticky rice."
"Oh!" I reply. "I thought it was some kind of animal part."
"Oh it is! It's stuffed into a pig's intestine."
Kwj gives a simple, nutshell version of why Hmong food has always used every bit of the beast. "One village might kill a cow or a pig and they would share with the next village who had the vegetables and the rice. And you didn't know when you would be getting another cow or another pig, so it's nose-to-tail everything. We eat every little bit. Every piece gets respected and nothing gets wasted."
Sticky rice is also sort of an ingenious convenience food invention: Grown-ups love it, kids love it, and with this innovation, simply slice or break off a bit and it becomes an on-the-go snack. And bonus, no part goes wasted. How should you feel about eating rice out of a pig's intestine? Fine! It tastes like any other sticky rice, but portable. Plain, lightly sweet, and satisfying.
Thanks to the Hmong migrations through China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, Hmong food takes considerable inspiration from other East Asian cuisines. While you might find something you probably haven't had before (say, for instance, a sticky rice intestine), you'll also find pho, banh mi, Peking duck, bubble tea, green papaya salad, and lots of things you probably have had.
I love taking out-of-towners to this marketplace because it offers an altogether unexpected snapshot of Minnesota, one that has nothing to do with the clichés of lutefisk, cabins on the lake, or Ole and Lena. The large, cacophonous wonderland teems with aromas, trinkets, jewelry, tinctures, herbs, spices, shoes, headdresses, bootleg DVDs, and on and on and on. It's a wholly different and no less enduring piece of our culture, cranking away in relative obscurity thanks to the enclaves that Hmong have created in St. Paul's East Side and Frogtown.
You should go, and arm yourself with this list and a little cash, as some places take cards, but others only cash. Or just point and purchase. Most items cost less than $5, and a grand feast will set you back no more than $20, a small price to pay for a transporting experience that's set right in your own Midwestern backyard.
For the novice diner:
Forbidden Rice/Sticky Purple Rice
Not only does it have the best name, it's also the best way to begin a trek through the market, because a side of this is the best accompaniment to almost any dish. A romantic shade of deep purple, it's easy to pinch up by hand, or use to absorb broths in any stew or soup, or eat next to a length of sausage, or just have all by itself — nothing forbidden about it.
Sweet Pork with Smoked Eggs
This is what would happen if BBQ pork and beef stew got married and had one of those babies that everyone stops on the street to declare: "Oh! She's so sweet!" Hmong Sweet Pork is a roasty, porky stew made almost sticky sweet with brown sugar, but also ginger, soy, oyster sauce, and garlic. Smoked whole eggs are a delightful surprise, like finding that final forgotten present at the bottom of the gift bag.
Fresh Bamboo Shoot Salad
Forget all about those uniform tabs of canned bamboo from your Chinese American takeout box. Fresh bamboo is more like a cross between Thai-style green papaya and a root vegetable, or maybe even a bit like jicama — ever so slightly woody — but then tenderized with citrus juice. It's tossed with toasted rice powder (like a larb salad), a little chile, and green herbs.
Fried Pork Intestine
With great potential for tossing into a paper bag, walking around, and popping like chicharrones, these are salty and a little sweet, with pleasing crisp-crunch chew. And they're easy to deal with — unlike their cousin, the beef intestine (read on).
When it's mango season, as it is right now, vendors will be doing all sorts of dreamy things with mango, like making Mangonada, a sweet, slushy sorbet striated with smoked paprika, chile, Chamoy (a pickled fruit condiment), and sticky-chewy tamarind candy. It's a fruity, spicy, salty tropical delight. It's beautiful, and definitely more Mexican in origin, but whatever. Hmong Village has got 'em, and they're a singular treat you don't want to miss. It's just the thing for neutralizing new or unusual flavors, like, ahem, beef intestine.
Whole fish stuffed with herbs and spices are proudly displayed in many booths, some uncooked and ready to take home and others toasty brown and ready to eat. Pompano, a whitefish with an almost creamy, salmony oiliness and potato-chip crisp skin, is lovely for picking at with chopsticks and eating with a bit of sticky rice.
Perhaps the most universally liked item in the Hmong market, Hmong sausage is a coarse-textured tube meat with explosive, fresh blasts of ginger, lemongrass, and chile. The almost explicitly long links are thrumming with the brilliant vigor of Thailand — basil, lime, and garlic — and stuffed into natural casing (oh, hi intestine!). They'll have you returning again and again as they're not available many other places and are alone worth the trip.
Steamed Pork Rolls
These look a bit like deflated spring rolls, with copious, floppy chew. Ground pork, dried wood ear mushrooms, and scallion seasoned with chile and fish sauce are loosely packed into rice paper skin. Some might long for more filling, but Kwj says this is the way it's done here, and we could see the innocuous chewiness being appealing to kids and others with simple palates. It's served with a side of spicy red chile sauce for a bit of kick.
Chinese-Style Roast Pork Belly
The food-porny sight of tawny-skinned Peking Ducks and heavy planks of massive pork bellies, fatty on one side, crackling as birch bark on the other, will be enough to send any epicure into fits. Order the pork belly by the pound, and a weighty pile of expertly chopped chunks is yours for around eight bucks, ready to toss into any stir-fry, soup, or salad, or just eat with your hands as we happily did.
While bubble and tapioca teas have made their way into teeny-bopper culture like selfies and Snapchat, there's an utter savant of the stuff on the north side of the building (the same place to get your Mangonada). He makes all of his tapioca jellies and pearls by hand, and expertly builds them like colorful sand art before your very eyes, through an ingenious window that frames only his hands and his materials. The tapiocas, in radiant shades of green and pink and even inky black, are relatively flavorless, but that offsets the emphatic sweetness of the cane sugar syrup and coconut milk that gets poured over top of the Lite-Brite jellies.
For the advanced adventurer:
Bitter pork is another stew-like dish, but with the addition of bitter melon and squiggly lengths of tripe. This is the serious, savory, pro eater's analog to Sweet Pork.
Though it looks gelatinous on the plate, beef tendon's actually more fatty and chewy, like unsmoked pork belly or, stick with me here, meaty bubble gum. Not for the easily squicked out, it's an interesting "nasty bit" that you've probably never had anywhere else, and might be nicer for the uninitiated if it were bobbing around in a broth rather than straight up. Still, it's worth a taste for bragging rights.
While it's got a lovely, burnished reddish-orange exterior, like the finest smoked pork skin, the interior of beef intestine reveals a disconcerting spongy brown texture, no easier to contend with when one considers it was once a poop chute. It's also faintly redolent of wet dog. In sum, an acquired taste.
Fish wrapped in banana leaf and steamed is one of nature's genius pairings. The flesh stays moist as the deep blue sea and takes on a singular tropical aroma. But beware the bitter fish, as much bone as flesh. Advanced seafood navigators will be fine — "You've just got to be one with the bones," says Kwj — but novices will inevitably wind up with one or more lodged in the windpipe. Don't worry too much, they eventually go down, but if maneuvering bones the size of eyelashes doesn't appeal, ask for the catfish instead.
Made-to-Order Green Papaya Salad
Otherwise known as what mortar and pestles were made for, green papaya salad is a must at the Hmong market. You control the heat, the citrus, the sugar, fish sauce, shrimp paste (at the best places, they'll give you a little sample bite before finishing up the process), and a woman with an "I mean business" look on her face will pound shreds of green papaya, long beans, Thai eggplant, and chile into a refreshing little salad. "It's got a nice smell to it," says Kwj, with a wicked look on his face. It's true, the fish sauce can get assertive, so beware.
Proceed at your own risk, but Kwj says his mom regularly visits for whatever ails her. "She can say she's got a headache, her back's been hurting, whatever, and they'll put together a remedy."
Too advanced? Try plain boiled veggies by the quart. "We eat very simply. We're farmers so we can't risk stomach aches. Boiled veggies over rice is a very typical meal." Or peruse the verdant produce market for everything you'd find at a typical farmers market, plus lots of stuff you won't, like dragon fruit, longan, rambutan, enormous Hmong cucumbers, baby Hubbard squash, foraged greens (very nutritious), and bundles of herbs all measured out and set to toss into the best chicken soup you've ever made.
The Hmong Village: It's good for what ails you.
1001 Johnson Parkway, St. Paul