Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Authentic Hmong food

This month's issue of Saveur magazine (proprietor of "authentic cuisine") has a feature article about a Hmong farmer from Fresno, his family, and the food they eat. The magazine tends toward pretension, but compared to other food magazines, it digs deeply into the stories of people and places. "Taking root " (by Andrea Nguyen) contextualizes some interesting recipes within the daily life John Xiong's family (lots of great pictures, too). Xiong favors hard work over chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the article emphasizes the importance of freshness in his produce and cooking. Recipes include: zaub ntsuab hau xyaw nqaij npuas sawv (Chinese mustard green soup), xwbkuab kib xyaw nqaij nyug (stir-fried angle luffa with beef), and good-looking recipe for a chili sauce with onion and cilantro (kua txob tuav xyaw dos). If anything, the article is a useful resource when wondering what to do with those unfamiliar vegetables you see at the farmers' market.

The article does raise the question: what is "authentic Hmong food?" Is it food that is unique to Hmong culture? Is it just food that Hmong people eat? Is it food that Hmong people used to eat but don't anymore? Is it daily food or food for special occasion's? Many Hmong Americans identify with foods like fawm kauv (stuffed rice crêpes, aka. noodle wraps), tuav qaub (green papaya salad), and kab yob (egg rolls). These foods are enjoyed by a wide range or Asian Americans. Does that make them any less "Hmong"? The other side of Hmong cooking has been described to me as "rice, vegetables, and water." This is the food that comes out the experience of subsisting in high, mountain farms. Does that make it more "authentic"?

Food, like music, is one of the crucial ways we define ourselves. For me, eating a plateful of deep-fried, beer-battered cheese curds manifests my Wisconsin-ness (as does constantly pointing out to Ohioans how sadly empty their lives are for not eating them). "Authenticity" is found in "doing." That doesn't mean that we shouldn't recognize the diverse history of our cultural practices, but that history cannot be used to deny the status of other practices.

What is it that Hmong Americans "do" with food? A lot of things, but many dishes seem to favor simple combinations of vegetables (with small amounts of meat) accompanied by searing hot dash of chili. But there are also foot-long sausages at New Year Festivals, tapioca pearls soaked in sweetened coconut milk, and mango in fish sauce with chili. I would not be eager to exclude any of it from "Hmong cuisine."

For those interested in Hmong recipes, you can find more information at:
  • Cooking from the heart: Hmong cooking in a America - only contains a few recipes (and hasn't been updated in a while), but it does a have a recipe at the extreme end of the "rice, vegetable, and water" spectrum: rice porridge (mov kua tsuag) - basically rice cooked with too much water.
  • Hmong Recipe Cookbook (Kathy Finkle) - available as a .pdf from the REN Bookshelf. Contains a great deal of information about a variety of food practices, vegetables, and following recipe for some "nostalgic food":
"Sy Xiong Vang's fresh Hmong corn bread/cake

Ears of fresh tender sweet corn are scraped to remove corn kernels, juice, and tender fiber next to corn cob. In Laos, Hmong cooks wrapped each 3 T. of the corn mixture in a banana leaf. In America, they use foil.

The wrapped corn bread (like a small American pancake) is steamed for 45 min. or baked in an oven at low temperature - 250 degrees - for an hour. On special occasions the corn bread is eaten plain with the main meal.

NOTE: This bread/cake is a nostalgic food for older Hmong people."

I couldn't write a post about Hmong food without mentioning at least a couple of my favorite Hmong restaurants. Eau Claire, Wisconsin has two great restaurants: Egg Roll Plus (outstanding coconut curry soups) and Pang Cher Vue's Hmong Noodle Wrap (get the ginger, chicken stir fry) where each meal is cooked fresh when you order. In Madison, I always save room for the buffet at Mai Zong Vue's Taste of Asia (be sure to go for the dinner buffet to get some stuffed chicken wings).

Follow-up: As I finished writing the post, the following article popped into my news reader - "Variety and spice: cooks faithful to authenticity of Asian fare." It features an interview with a Hmong chef who will be preparing food for the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival this weekend (28-29 July). Souzana Vang efficiently sums up the diverse history of Hmong food and its specialness for Hmong people:
"Typical Hmong food takes a little from Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese foods. It has similar ingredients, but the way we use spices makes it distinct from the other tastes. ... It's as important as the language, and it's unique to eat something other people don't know about."
There are also two recipes which sound really good whether they're "authentic" or not:
7.30.07 Udpate:

Sami Scripter, from the Cooking from the heart website wrote to inform me that the cookbook she is co-authoring with Sheng Yang is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press. In her words:
We hope that our book will be an honest, positive look into Hmong culture, from the vantage point of the kitchen (something most people can relate to).
The book will also contain poetry and prose from Hmong writers and Sami promises that they too will tackle the question: "What exactly is Hmong cooking?"

2.09.09 Update: New Cookbooks Available