Yia Vang has a set of classic stories he loves to tell.
He’s just told me the one about the guy who comes up after a Hmong cooking demonstration, cups Vang’s big right hand in both of his, looks up earnestly into Vang’s eyes, and says, “I just love Thai food.”
“I mean, dude, I just spent an hour telling you how Hmong food isn’t Thai food,” Vang giggles. “You know, I get it that you toured Bangkok last year, but can we listen a little bit?”
He is standing at my stovetop, stirring a potful of a kind of curry, in which some unapologetically fatty pork rib meat is slowly releasing from the bone into a state of semi-rendered silkiness. The air of the kitchen hangs thick with the citric tang of lemongrass and ginger, the almost fruity grassiness of Hmong cilantro, and the acid fumes of freshly sliced Thai chiles. There is also, way down beneath this high-note olfactory noise, the deep, rotten, bass rumble of fish sauce.
“Lemongrass, ginger and garlic,” declares Vang, leaning over the pot and inhaling. “Like Hmong sofrito, brother.”
I happen to be a 6-foot-1, 250-pounder, but I have never quite commanded my own kitchen to the degree that, I realize now, it can be commanded.
Yia Vang runs his Union Kitchen restaurant as an occasional pop-up that settles into other locations.
Vang looms mountainously across from me in flip-flops and black apron, under a dome of shaved head, wearing a bib of black beard that might be seen as intimidating, if he didn’t regularly let loose with a smile of guileless glee that lights his eyes with merry, mischievous fire.
He replaces the cover of the curry pot, and tilts his head sideways to read the handle. “Ooh,” he says. “Le Creuset. You’re so fancy.”
Which, for all I know, may feature in another of his classic Yia Vang stories someday — the one about the white guy who, when asked for a simple pot to put some curry in, pulled out — of course — a Le Creuset enameled Dutch oven.
Here is what I’ve struggled the hardest to understand about Hmong food, as I have tried slowly and incompletely, with much forgiving help from Vang, to lessen my ignorance.
I keep wanting it to be a cuisine, and it keeps not letting me think about it that way. I keep wanting it to be French Mediterranean, or Moroccan, or, yes I’ll admit it, Thai. In other words, I want it to be something I understand — something that comes from a particular place on Earth, and is made up of the interaction between the people who have pretty much always lived there, and what that geographical place recognizably grows, along with a few key anchoring flavors — like thyme, garlic, olive oil and tomatoes, or like couscous, saffron, preserved lemon and olives.
But when you have lived nomadically for centuries, chased out of China, then across the hills of Laos, Thailand and North Vietnam, by circumstances varying from war to political unrest to poor soil, what you do is make ends meet, adopting and borrowing here and there the ingredients and techniques you need, from the places where you’ve stayed.
And so, Hmong food is in some ways an attitude about food — a history of adaptability, a creative spirit in the face of scarcity — as much as it is a collection of ingredients, techniques and classic dishes.
It’s part of the reason that although the Minnesota Hmong population, at 66,000, dwarfs that of Vietnamese Americans (about 26,000) and Thai Americans (about 3,200), there are Thai and Vietnamese restaurants in nearly every Twin Cities neighborhood, and effectively no Hmong restaurants — with the exception of Vang’s pop-up, Union Kitchen, which has been evangelizing on behalf of Hmong food for several years now, migrating from one host restaurant to another for single-night events.
It’s a situation that Vang hopes to change over the next year or two by halting his nomadic pop-up wanderings and establishing a more permanent, brick-and-mortar home.
“You know what my father’s favorite thing to do was each month?” Vang has previously asked. “His favorite thing to do was pay the mortgage. Because, he said, every one of those payments was one more step to owning a home, which his people had never had in history.”
We leave the curried broth to burble in its overspecified pot, and move to the backyard, where a mound of oak logs has spent the afternoon reducing itself to a flaring, popping bed of embers.
“Oh, yeah,” says Vang. “This will do.”
If some elements of Hmong cooking can seem elusive or resistant to easy definitions and categories, the role of fire, I’ve learned, is reassuringly essential. In fact, the word for kitchen, in the Hmong language, translates as “the place where rice is cooked.” And that place, for centuries, was a cooking fire, outside.
“It took me a long time to figure out bonfires,” Vang has said. “I’m like, wait, you’re going to burn a bunch of wood and not cook over it?”
We will not be making that mistake today. Vang sets two cinder blocks directly in the embers, just far enough apart to support a heavy cooking grate. Then we set two more cinder blocks on top of the first ones, and lay a second grate on those, to create a double-decker, dual-temperature, open-fire cooktop.
Then he drops a thick pork chop and three cuts of pork butt on the lower grate and, using a split stalk of lemongrass as a basting brush, he mops the meat with a mix of oyster sauce, fish sauce, garlic and chiles. A few rainbow trout join the pork, and are brushed with the mop sauce.
“Two things I could never do in front of my mother,” Vang says, watching fat drip hissingly into the coals. “Push my sister, and cut the fat off the meat.”
Several guests have joined us, friends and family, having gotten word that Vang would be cooking today.
His cousin Chris Her — also his Union Kitchen sous chef — is working on a makeshift prep table nearby. Her chops more Hmong cilantro — used more for its stems than its leaves — and adds this to a mortar that already contains garlic, Thai chiles, fish sauce and some end-of-season cherry tomatoes. He grinds this into a rough kind of salsa, squeezes two fistfuls of halved lime into his mortar, and grinds some more.
Earlier we had wrapped some sticky rice in a banana leaf and heated it in the oven, and now the assembled company approaches the prep table, and at Vang’s insistence, unwraps the rice, tears off clumps of it, and dips them in the pungent salsa.
“This was what my mom served us for a snack,” says Vang. “It was like our baloney sandwich on Wonder Bread. I always complained that there wasn’t any meat.”
No one gathered around the table appears to wish that the sticky rice and hot sauce in their mouths more closely resembled a baloney sandwich.
Later, Her will put together Tiger Bite Sauce, made similarly, but green, with no tomatoes.
“Make it hot,” Vang will say.
“White people hot?” Her will ask with a grin. “Or Hmong hot?”
“Ten pepper hot,” Vang will say, and Her will dice up 10 slender red crescents with their seeds, and sweep them into his mortar — admitting the assembled company into the realm of respectable contenders, if far from champions.
It is easy to get distracted by the surface sensations of the afternoon. The cloud of scent in the kitchen, the smell of smoke and cooked fat and banana leaf steam, the rising heat of a mouthful of 10-pepper sauce.
But there is a structure beneath it — one I wouldn’t have noticed on my own, but recognize when Vang points it out.
A traditional Hmong meal would generally include four elements: a foundation of rice, a protein, some kind of stock or broth to pour over the rice (often with vegetables) and peppers.
Between the kitchen and the cooking fire today, we have built a meal on those four elements — the sticky rice for our rice, the grilled pork and fish for our protein, the curry on the stove for our broth, and the two hot sauces for our peppers.
These four elements are generally constant, but individually replaceable. The rice could be white rice, not sticky. The stock could be chicken-based, instead of pork (and full of whatever vegetables the season, or the landscape, had on offer). The protein could be cooked in the broth, over the fire, or both.
It’s not the grand complicated tradition of an ancient, stable, imperial culture. It’s not Escoffier. But it has its own specific genius, offering on one hand the comfort of four-part predictability to people forced often to live unpredictable lives. And it offers on the other hand massive, interchangeable flexibility to people whose next protein could be chicken, pork, freshwater fish or wild game, and whose evening’s vegetables might be forest mushrooms, wild aromatics and a handful of farmed or foraged vegetables.
As a cuisine, it is a witness and a testament to a culture that, against odds sometimes difficult even to understand, has survived.
Vang adds one more vegetable before we’re through, a quick sauté of mustard greens in oil, filling our family kitchen with a smell that brings him back to his own.
“Mom used to make us eat ice cream,” says Vang. “Not for a treat, but because she wanted the bucket to ferment mustard greens in.”
And then we all sit down, to an outlandish feast based on a simple formula that has worked everywhere it has been tried, from Southeast Asia, to Fresno, Calif., to St. Paul.
Over the very talkative several hours that follow, a half-dozen candles burn slowly down. We ladle tiny spoonfuls of Tiger Bite Sauce onto slabs of smoky trout, and the sauce’s slow fire smolders like embers in our mouths. We lean over our plates to catch the gingery broth that trickles from saturated knobs of sticky rice. We don’t cut the fat off the meat.
Our voices rise into one loud chorus.
Many roads have brought us here, pilgrims, hungry for communion.