terese allen
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Hmong Flavor: An Ancient Cuisine Spices Up the State’s Culinary Culture
1997 Copyright by Terese Allen

Farming is central to Hmong culture, which dates back thousands of years in China. Living self-reliantly in remote mountain villages, the Hmong learned to make the most of the foods they grew. They developed a frugal cuisine based largely on rice, a great variety of vegetables, and simple, vibrantly flavored preparations. As immigrants to Laos in the 19th century they continued to farm and cook using traditional methods, but incorporated many Southeast Asian ingredients and food customs into their lives.

Most of the roughly 150,000 Hmong people who live in the United States today reside in Wisconsin, Minnesota and California. They arrived after the Vietnam War and came mainly from Laos via refugee camps in Thailand, fleeing a government bent on revenge for Hmong support of American troops.

Not surprisingly, the Hmong agrarian legacy has made its mark at farmers’ markets in Eau Claire, La Crosse, Madison and other towns where Hmong growers supply luscious-looking, affordable, and--to many shoppers--exotic produce. Like immigrant groups before them, they season the mix that has long been Wisconsin’s culinary heritage.

bok choy

To learn more about Hmong foods, stop by one of their market stands or visit an Asian grocery store. Some cooks will recognize ingredients like Chinese cabbage and cilantro (fresh coriander) but few are familiar with bitter melon, which looks like a pale green wrinkled cucumber; used like zucchini, it has a bitter flavor much appreciated by Asian cultures. Stalks of slender green lemongrass are sliced and added to soups or boiled chicken for a fragrant, lemony touch. (Remove them before serving). Hmong cooks use greens abundantly, including Chinese broccoli, mustard greens and the young prunings from most any vegetable plant. Seeds shipped from the homeland yield unusual varieties of squash, cucumbers, beans and eggplant.

Green onions and fresh herbs flavor many dishes. At mealtime, families place bowls of spicy dipping sauce strategically around the table. The sauce is often made with Thai chili peppers--a mere inch or two in length and almost overpowering to the Western tongue.

Rice is fundamental to the Hmong diet. "No matter what else you eat, if you don’t have rice, five minutes later, you’re craving it," says Bee Yang, a Hmong-English translator. "You’re not full without it." His family eats long-grain white rice at breakfast, lunch and dinner, whereas sticky or "sweet" rice is an occasional treat. This short-grained, glutinous rice has a mellow taste, can be white or purple, and is sometimes sweetened with sugar to serve as a dessert.


Try a recipe for a Spicy Hmong Salad

Excerpted from Wisconsin Trails magazine, September/October, 1997