Despite the fact that Minnesota has more than 100,000 Hmong residents, finding examples of Hmong cooking is not easy. With a long tradition of oral history, cookbooks featuring Hmong food are rare and only a few Hmong restaurants have survived in this area.
The Hmong can trace their roots back 5,000 years to China where they had a strong, civilized nation led by a legendary king Txiv Yawg. Unfortunately, many wars over the centuries dispersed the Hmong to other areas including the mountains of Laos. Here a large group thrived until the Vietnamese conflict found them being misused by both sides and once again, they dispersed to other countries. By 2000 it was estimated that around 200,000 Hmong lived outside Asia with the majority (186,310) in the U.S. More than 45,000 settled in Minnesota with half of them living in St. Paul, the largest Hmong settlement in the U.S. Today, there are an estimated 100,000 Hmong in Minnesota with 90 percent living in the Twin Cities. So why is it so hard to find Hmong cooking? My search led me to the busiest corner in the state.
The sign says International Market, but the local Hmong refer to it as the Flea Market. In celebration of the Hmong New Year, I had been searching for local resources for Hmong food. And, even though each person gave me different directions to the Flea Market, I finally found it at the corner of Marion and Como Avenues in St. Paul.
Packed into an area that should be twice its size is a collection of buildings, tents, sheds, stalls and parking lots that teemed with shoppers going in every direction. Racks and racks of clothes hung beneath open shed roofs or swayed out in the morning breeze and offered everything from jackets and slacks to elaborately beaded dresses for little girls. Fresh produce from nearby farms was neatly displayed in nearby open sheds and the smell of the market’s only restaurant added to the fun.
With at least 200 cars packed into the parking lot, it was clear that hundreds of shoppers roamed the area. Families were doing their weekly grocery shopping. Grandparents were buying gifts for their little ones. Teenagers milled about, just as they do in any suburban mall. It was, in fact, like any other busy market in any busy Asian city and probably the closest thing this area has to a Hmongtown.
While the market’s small restaurant offers some typical pork, chicken, rice, and stir-fried dishes, it is clear the Flea Market is for strolling, shopping, meeting friends, and enjoying the outdoors. The sign says it is open year ‘round so much of the winter shopping must be in the various buildings filled with dozens of vendors offering everything from produce and videos to dried herbs and a variety of imports.
Down the road at University and Kent, FoodSmart is another Hmong food resource that opened eleven years agp. It offers a complete line of Hmong food plus Asian groceries, meat, fish, and videos. It also has a small Hmong restaurant in a spacious dining hall that is often used for large gatherings. Home cooked dishes include Hmong and Thai favorites that can be ordered at the counter then delivered to the table. The last time I was there I enjoyed spicy homemade Hmong sausage, boiled chicken, and steamed rice. Other choices include barbecues, egg rolls, stir-fries and seafood dishes.
FoodSmart is open daily with plenty of parking at the door. During warmer months, there is also a Farmers’ Market in the nearby parking lot.
There are a few other restaurants in the area operated by Hmong owners, but they serve a variety of cuisines with some Hmong influences.
While Hmong cuisine has been influenced by Chinese, Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese cooking many cooks tell me the cooking of Laos is the closest to Hmong so you may want to check out Simple Laotian Cooking by Penn Hongthong. The 172 recipes include a variety of lobs, curries, stir-fries and other traditional dishes from the author’s childhood in Laos. Published by Hippocrene Books in 2003 it has the hardcover price of $24.95.
Phyllis Louise Harris is a cookbook author, food writer and cooking teacher specializing in Asian foods. She is founder of the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes Ltd. dedicated to the preservation, understanding and enjoyment of the culinary arts of the Asia Pacific Rim. For information about ACAI’s programs call 612-813-1757 or visit the website at www.asianculinaryarts.com.