“When we get something good, we want to keep it that way. It comes from being hunted,” says Yia Vang, a chef determined to bring Hmong cooking out of the home and into the restaurant.
An ethnic minority in China, the Hmong were forced to live as nomads in the remote mountains of China, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. “Nobody wanted us,” Vang says. So they moved constantly, rarely staying put for more than a year at a time.
With no land to call their own, or a chance to create a distinctive cuisine, they made do with whatever they could, sharing with neighboring clans, taking influence from everywhere, with the ultimate goal of just staying alive.
As a result, Hmong cuisine is a perfect repository for adaptation. Vang’s dish of seasonal vegetables with bamboo shoots, pork belly, and red coconut curry topped with tater tots is as Hmong as anything. “Hmong food isn’t a type of food. It’s a way of food,” he says.
When the topic turns to cooking, Vang’s speech turns rapid, his hands flailing. Dancing eyes seem to disappear above a full-body smile. “Something strange happens to your heart when you start thinking about these stories. I’m sorry, but I can get very passionate about this.”
But it’s not necessarily cooking that makes the young chef so passionate. Not really. “If I was gifted with writing, I’d tell stories through writing. If I was gifted with painting, I’d tell stories through that.” He just happens to be gifted at cooking.
Vang disdained Hmong cooking as a child, thanks to the teasing he suffered due to the fermented greens and chicken on the bone in his lunchbox. “But every dish has a narrative, and if you follow the narrative closely enough, eventually you get to the people.”
The people: Vang is among more than 60,000 Hmong who call Minnesota home, many having arrived as refugees. And though the largest urban Hmong population in the world is here, the culture and food remain esoteric to most Twin Citians.
Vang’s Union Kitchen, a catering company, pop-up outfit, restaurant-in-the-making, and “teaching kitchen,” is poised to pull back the veil on that mystery, to show the world how amazing fermented greens can be.
Hmong aren’t prone to drawing attention to themselves, for their culinary contributions or otherwise. But through “the table,” as Vang calls it, there is always friendship, bonding, and understanding.
“Being a person of color, this is a great time for us. Food is an open door to get a part of that pop-culture conversation.”
He’s not trying to make Hmong food fancy. “Hmong food is about as un-fancy as it gets. It’s like, how do you make sweatpants fancy? You don’t. But you can embrace it. You can put on your button-down with your sweatpants and go to the party.”