Most Minnesotans know the state is home to the largest urban concentration of Hmong immigrants in the country.
I grew up on the East Side of St. Paul thinking of Southeast Asian cooking as my birthright. Pho, rice noodle salads and banh mi are more Minnesotan to me than any lutefisk or lefse. Still, I didn’t know much about Hmong food, even though we have about three times as many Hmong neighbors as we do Vietnamese.
Until I met my friend Chef Yia Vang, who has been our state’s emissary for understanding Hmong cuisine, I didn’t really know much about the cooking. He runs a wildly successful restaurant, Minneapolis’ Union Hmong Kitchen, with another in the works.
I asked Yia what he thought of as an iconic home cooking dish from the culture, and whether his mom would teach me how to make it. He asked her and she said yes.
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“Hmong cooking is not naturally a restaurant cuisine,” Yia began, standing in his mom’s impeccable sprawling suburban mansion kitchen. “Because it's not made to be cooked in a restaurant. You know, there's all these processes, all these parts to it, that if you think about how this food came to be, it was pulled from different moments of suffering.”
Pang remembers living through a constant state of war as a girl. Born into a village in Laos she says didn’t really have a name, her family was forced to move from place to place just to survive. Many people were killed, she says, and that’s just the way it was.
Through listening to stories of his parents’ ordeal and hardships, Yia has built not just a restaurant but a storytelling space that’s an homage to them. Though he towers over her by more than a foot, Pang is boss and chef in this home kitchen. Her influence on her son is as palpable as the food we’re about to enjoy.
“The food that we do at the restaurant, yes, it's Hmong food,” Yia explains, “and it's a reflection of mom and dad's table, but [at] mom and dad's table, that's where you're gonna get what you’re longing for. We want to give people a taste — so that they want to actually explore more.”
That further exploration was why I wanted to get into Pang’s kitchen. I knew that is where Yia’s food story began — the one that compelled him to start his businesses Union Hmong Kitchen and Vinai, his upcoming restaurant named after the refugee camp where he was born.
And it began with dishes like the one we would be making, a steamed rice roll called Fawm Kauv, which is pronounced ‘pho-kau.’ This roll with the texture of pho noodles stuffed with seasoned ground pork was a childhood favorite of Yia’s, but I wanted to know what it meant to his mom, too.
As it turns out, she loved it as a child too but her experience with it was a little bit different.
Yia translates for Pang as she masterfully pours batter into three lightly oiled pans. She looks almost bored as she stands by the stove, but Yia says she is watching everything closely, simultaneously listening and watching for signs the wraps are done. She flips the finished ones onto an old carefully cleaned rice bag that she reserves solely for the purpose thanks to its non-stick properties. Then she fills and rolls while fielding difficult questions and painful memories.
“In Laos when they were making this, it literally was just like maybe scallions or onions inside. There was no meat — meat was probably about two or three times a year — that's all you got. But growing up this was their favorite,’ Yia translated.
I asked Pang what cooking was like growing up, and if she could remember making dishes like this one with her mom and grandmother.
“She said the moment you know how to dress yourself is the moment you start working in your part of the kitchen. [They] didn't have school — it was you get up and you're contributing to the home. So I think that that aspect of it is what makes home cooking completely different. You know, because it is a part of the rhythm of life.”
And that rhythm of life was very different from the three-point pivot that Pang is able to make from her sink to her stovetop to her refrigerator in one fluid swoop.
“She said that it was very difficult,” Yia continues. “Especially the way that they cooked in Laos — you didn't have running water, so you would go to the river, or you go to a stream. You bring the water back and boil it. You know, just to steam rice. Sometimes you didn't have pots and pans so you cut down bamboo. But everybody just jumped in and got involved.”
I wanted to know more about the circumstances of Pang’s birth, and asked about the path that brought her to Minnesota.
Those circumstances offer a snapshot of the Hmong immigration experience.
She was born in the hills in Laos in the late 1950s, and for as long as she can remember her father was fighting in some kind of war.
“Eventually they went to Long Cheng,” Yia translates, “A really big village where a lot of Hmong people ended up. More people died — people were killed — life just moved forward.”
Pang adds that watching the war in Ukraine right now resonates with her deeply as she remembers what happened in Laos.
“That’s exactly the way it was,” she says.
After visiting the Hmong Marketplaces in St. Paul — sprawling food courts with myriad food stalls offering all sorts of Hmong dishes, I started to understand the food as survival cooking — the nomadic people being forced to move from village to village, country to country, picking up influences from each place they passed through. Pang’s recollection of her ordeal as a young woman living hand to mouth underscored this.
Yia listened intently as his mother recalled her, at times, horrific past.
“They slaughtered all the men, and all the women and children were hiding in the jungles — over half of them were killed — but they hid there for about a month with no food. So they would have to eat tree bark and roots.”
Eventually enemy soldiers discovered and captured them. All of the boys 12 and over were imprisoned, but the small children and women were fed — the first time they ate proper food in a month.
Yia said he was hearing parts of this story for the first time. His parents have tried to shield their kids and grandkids from their difficulties, focusing on giving them a better life in the U.S. But making Fawm Kauv whenever her kids crave it, always filled with meat and not just scallions, is a poignant snapshot of that better life.
Still, Pang says she worries a bit about the younger generations, and what might get lost when they lose touch with at least some of the history of that hardship.
“She said that her fear is that they’re not going to know how to make any of this stuff after her generation is gone,” Yia says. “That they won't even know how to simply make rice. How are they going to eat? You know, who's going to take care of them? She's afraid that eventually they're not going to know how to be Hmong.”
But today, even as Pang cooks Fawm Kauv with avocado oil from Trader Joes and non-stick pans from Target — all of which she keeps aside especially for this process — the survival of Hmong culture is more than evident.
“This is something where it's like, if you want this, and you want it right, you have to go to a home,” Yia concludes. “This isn't a restaurant dish. And I don't want to mess with it.
At least where it comes to Fawm Kauv, Pang needn’t worry about her kids forgetting how to be Hmong.
Correction (May 11, 2022): A previous version of this story contained a misspelling of Fawm Kauv. The story has been updated.