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More cooks are taking stock in using Hmongs' distinct culinary traditions

BY: TERESE ALLEN, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel June 26, 2002 Wednesday

To find out what the next culinary trend will be, look to your local farmers market. That's where chefs and cooks-in-the-know go for the freshest ideas and most unusual ingredients, and it's where "in" foods like baby vegetables and heirloom tomatoes first gained popularity.

If you've checked out any markets around the state in recent years, you've probably noticed some unfamiliar fare: curly pea shoot tendrils, gnarly-looking bitter melons, lemongrass, foot-long asparagus beans. Alongside such familiar Asian favorites as cilantro, cucumbers and hot peppers, they're being brought to market by Hmong-American growers, who have their own distinct culinary traditions.

Could a craze for Hmong cooking be close behind?

Let's hope so, because Hmong cuisine has a lot to offer. Rooted in an ancient farming culture, it features a large variety of seasonal vegetables. Now's the time to explore it, as outdoor stands are beginning to overflow at markets in Madison, Appleton, Wausau, Milwaukee and other cities.

A past rooted in farming

The Hmong culture dates back several thousand years in China. Living in remote regions where they hunted and farmed, the Hmong periodically fought to defend their independence from the Chinese. In the 19th century, thousands migrated south into the kingdoms of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Here, continuing their self-sufficient ways, they grew rice and kept lush vegetable gardens in the high wetlands.

Hmong families began to arrive in the United States after the Vietnam War, fleeing a government bent on revenge for Hmong support of American troops. Most came from Laos via refugee camps in Thailand, facing terror and loss along the way. According to the Lao Human Rights Council in Eau Claire, approximately 300,000 Hmong-Americans live in the United States today. About 80,000 of them reside in Wisconsin, where their agricultural expertise and culinary traditions are seasoning the mix that has long been part of the state's heritage.

Each Saturday, two to three dozen Hmong-American vendors set up around the Capitol Square at the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison. As a regular shopper there since the 1970s, I've learned a little about the ingredients, customs and craft of Hmong cuisine. I say little, because, like the ingenious story-telling needlework pieces for which the Hmong are known, their cooking is unpretentious yet intricate. The more you look, the more you see.

Frugality is almost an art form in Hmong culture. Gardeners harvest pea shoots and the prunings from many plants, then sell them by the bunch to be used fresh in salads, stir-fried as a side dish, or simmered in nourishing broths. Mai Moua, a friendly grower I visit often, likes to stir-fry young stalks of Chinese broccoli (leafier than conventional broccoli, with small buds) and pea shoots in a little hot oil.

"Cook Chinese broccoli first, then peas," says Moua, tapping one bunch and then the other to make sure I understand her. Juicy, jade-colored Chinese broccoli takes longer to cook than delicate pea shoots, so her method gets them tender at the same time. "First stems, then the leaves," she also cautions, meaning the stems of both first, then the leaves, in four steps.

You can add minced fresh ginger or soy sauce, but the only seasoning Moua uses is salt, and that's all that's really needed. The mild pea shoots and the sweet but assertive Chinese broccoli make an outstanding match.

Greens, front and center

Hmong diners have a passion for squash, cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers and many types of greens. It's still too early for squash or pumpkins, but soon vendors will be harvesting the blossoms and tops of immature squash plants. Grower Cha Vang of Mauston once showed me how to strip the stringy outer layer of the trimmings with a sharp knife. The tendrils, peeled stalks and blossoms cook up tender and fast in a stir-fry, he said.

Vang also introduced me to purslane, which I always thought of as a nuisance weed until he gave me a sample to taste. The tear-shaped leaves were refreshingly tart, just the thing to add to a tossed salad.

A Hmong meal is rarely without fresh herbs, especially mint, basil and cilantro. Green onions and garlic flavor many dishes. For a fragrant, lemony touch in soups or boiled chicken, cooks add slender green stalks of lemon grass. The very young shoots are tender enough to be finely minced and added to stir-fries, but mature lemongrass, cut into large pieces and used more like bay leaves, is typically removed before serving.

The extensive use of greens is an example of the Hmong's Chinese heritage; cilantro reflects Laotian and Thai influence.

Another crop from southeast Asia, and one that will become available at area markets in coming weeks, is Thai eggplant, an egg-sized, grassy-green orb that has a burst of white veins on the base and a stem that extends clawlike around the top half of the fruit. Vang taught me to eat small ones raw with salt and pepper for a crunchy and pleasantly bitter snack. He also recommended cooking Thai eggplant "with chicken, lemon grass, garlic," and nodded yes to other suggestions: onion, basil, hot pepper sauce, all of which I've since tried, and all of which are delicious.

Bitter flavors are a staple

Like many Asians, the Hmong appreciate bitter-tasting foods, and favor bitter melon, another summer specialty. It looks like a pale-green, deeply wrinkled cucumber but is used like zucchini, especially in stir-fries with chicken. The strong flavor can be tamed for less adventurous palates by salting it as you would eggplant. Your first taste -- pre-salted or not -- can be a shock, but like hot peppers or quinine water, bitter melons have a distinctive flavor that is potentially addictive.

Rice is fundamental to the Hmong diet. I've been told by one Hmong-American gentleman that "no matter what else you eat, if you don't have rice, five minutes later, you're craving it." Some people eat long-grain white rice at every meal, whereas mellow-flavored sticky or "sweet" rice is an occasional treat.

The sweet short-grained, glutinous rice is sometimes sweetened with sugar to serve as a dessert. Connie Roop, co-author of "The Hmong in America: We Sought Refuge" (Appleton Area School District, 1990), used to teach English to Hmong-American youth, and remembers her students bringing her large, brightly dyed balls of sticky rice wrapped in aluminum foil -- a kind of Hmong equivalent to the shiny red apple.

Hot peppers are another essential ingredient. At mealtime, families place bowls of very 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. They're no problem for Hmong diners, however, some of whom will tell you that store-bought hot peppers are not hot enough.

While you can find many fresh specialties at farmers markets, look for sticky rice and other characteristic Hmong foods -- coconut milk, fresh ginger, fish sauce, tofu, noodles, etc. -- at Asian grocery stores and many supermarkets.

Stock up now . . . because the Hmong cooking craze might soon be on its way.

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This egg roll recipe is adapted from Peter and Connie Roop's "The Hmong: We Sought Refuge Here."

Hmong Egg Rolls

3 1/2 ounces bean thread noodles Hot water 1 pound lean ground pork (or substitute ground turkey) 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onions 1 egg 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1 pound egg roll wrappers 1 egg white 3 to 4 cups vegetable oil for frying Hot pepper sauce (see recipe)

Soak noodles in hot water until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and chop.

In bowl, mix together noodles, pork, onions, whole egg, salt and pepper.

Place egg roll wrapper on work surface with one corner pointing toward you. Place 2 heaping tablespoons filling near bottom corner, shaping mixture to look like a hot dog. Roll wrapper end over meat to middle of wrapper. Brush unrolled edges of wrapper with egg white and roll up completely. Repeat with remaining filling and wrappers.

Heat oil to 375 degrees. Deep-fry egg rolls in small batches until light brown, about 5 minutes. (Allow oil to return to 375 degrees before starting another batch.) Drain on paper towels. Serve with sweet-and-sour sauce or hot pepper sauce. Makes 20 to 25 egg rolls.

Hot pepper sauce:

3 to 4 red or green Thai (or other) hot peppers, chopped 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro 1 tablespoon bottled Thai fish sauce Juice of 1 lime or more to taste

Mash chopped hot peppers and cilantro with mortar and pestle (don't use a food processor) until a paste forms. Stir in fish sauce and lime juice. Makes about 1/3 cup.

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This next recipe is adapted from a recipe by Wanchalee Pochanayon of Kenosha in "Bountiful Wisconsin" by Terese Allen (Trails Books, 2000).

Laotian Spiced Meat and Lettuce Roll-Ups

3 pounds ground round beef or lean ground pork 1/3 cup uncooked cream of rice cereal 1 cup thinly sliced green onions 1 cup finely chopped fresh mint Juice of 4 limes or 2 lemons 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes or to taste 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro 2 teaspoons salt or to taste Lettuce leaves Cooked sweet rice or long-grain white rice Hot pepper sauce (see recipe above) or bottled red chili dipping sauce Your choice of the following: chopped or thinly sliced green cabbage leaves, green onions, cucumber, tomatoes, fresh mint, green olives, radishes

Place ground meat in pot with enough cold water to barely cover it. Bring to simmer and cook gently until done. (Alternatively, you may fry the meat in a pan until done). Drain and let cool.

Place dry rice cereal in heavy -- preferably cast-iron -- skillet. Heat over medium flame, tossing occasionally, until grains are lightly browned. Let cool. Mix cooked meat, rice grains, green onions, chopped mint, lime or lemon juice, red pepper flakes, cilantro and salt.

To serve, mound meat mixture on lettuce leaves on large platter. Serve with sweet or long-grain rice, hot pepper sauce and vegetable tray that includes lettuce leaves and a variety of accompaniments from the list above. Diners make "roll-ups" with the lettuce, meat and accompaniments of their choice. Makes 8 or more servings.

Sticky Rice

12 cups glutinous short-grain ("sweet") rice (or substitute round or arborio short-grain rice) Water 1 teaspoon salt

Place rice in strainer in deep bowl, cover with water and swish until water turns cloudy. Lift strainer to drain rice; discard water. Continue to add water, swish, drain and discard until water in bowl is clear.

After last draining, place rice in heavy saucepan with 1 3/4 cups water and the salt, cover pan tightly and let stand 15 minutes. Place pan over high heat. When steam begins to emerge from under lid, reduce heat to very low and cook until water has been absorbed and you can hear the rice beginning to sizzle in the pan, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 10 minutes. Makes 3 cups.

Mai's Stir-Fried Pea Shoots and Chinese Broccoli

1 bunch Chinese broccoli 1 bunch pea shoots Corn oil Salt 1 to 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger (optional)

Trim off and discard 1 to 2 inches of stems of Chinese broccoli; wash bunch thoroughly in cold water and shake off excess moisture. Chop into 3-inch pieces, keeping stems and leaves in separate piles. Repeat with pea shoots.

Heat wok or large heavy skillet over high flame several minutes. Add a little corn oil and let it heat another moment or two. When oil is very hot, add Chinese broccoli stems, sprinkle with salt, and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes. Add pea shoot stems, sprinkle with salt and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes. Continue with Chinese broccoli leaves, and then pea shoot leaves. Continue stir-frying until leaves are wilted and vegetables are crisp-tender. During last minute or two of cooking, stir in ginger, if desired. Makes 4 to 5 servings.

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This recipe from "Fresh Market Wisconsin" by Terese Allen (Amherst Press, 1993).

Southeast Asian Spicy Salad ("Tomsum")

5 to 6 cups peeled and shredded carrot, cucumber, turnip or unripe papaya (divided) 2 teaspoons minced garlic 2 to 5 red or green Thai hot peppers, chopped 1/2 cup roasted, lightly salted peanuts, ground 2 tablespoons dried shrimp, ground 3 to 4 thin slices tomato 3 thin slices lime, plus additional lime juice to taste 2 teaspoons bottled Thai fish sauce 2 teaspoons sugar or to taste

Combine 2 cups shredded vegetable with garlic and hot peppers in large bowl or wooden mortar. Use large spoon or wooden pestle to smash and press mixture for several minutes (you'll be able to "hear" moisture in dish after a while). Add remaining ingredients, including remaining shredded vegetable. Continue to smash and press mixture until vegetables are limp and juicy and ingredients are well-combined, 5 to 10 minutes. Add more lime juice or sugar to taste. Serve at room temperature with grilled chicken and/or sticky rice. Makes 4 servings.

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Terese Allen of Madison is a columnist and author who writes about regional cooking and the foods of Wisconsin.

A LEARNING EXPERIENCE

To learn more about Hmong history, culture and food, check out these resources:

-- "Hmong American Food Practices, Customs and Holidays." From Ethnic and Regional Food Practices: A Series (American Dietetic Association and American Diabetes Association Inc., 1999 second edition).

-- "Hmong in America: Journey from a Secret War" by Tim Pfaff (Chippewa Valley Museum Press, 1995).

-- "New Pioneers in the Heartland: Hmong Life in Wisconsin" by Jo Ann Koltyk (Allyn & Bacon, 1997).

-- "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures" by Anne Fadiman (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1998).

-- WWW Hmong Homepage Web site, www.hmongnet.org.

-- Hmong Cultural Center Web site, www.hmongcenter.org. CORRECTION-DATE: June 27, 2002 CORRECTION:

A recipe for sticky rice in the food section Wednesday that accompanied an article about Hmong food misstated the amount of rice needed. The recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups, not 12 cups.