Courtesy of Mary Jo Hoffman
Yia Vang grew up in a family of storytellers.
When he was a child, his father regaled him and his six siblings with war stories from his native Laos. His mother read verses from the Bible and made her children recite them from memory.
Vang, now 33, says food is his storytelling medium. As co-founder of Union Kitchen, a Minnesota-based Hmong pop-up restaurant, Vang says he wants to make the food he grew up with more accessible to non-Hmong people, while passing the traditions on to the next. generation of Hmong Americans. .
“Our history is intrinsically linked to the food we eat,” he says. “Every dish has a narrative, and if you follow that narrative closely enough, you understand people.”
Vang and his family are among more than 100,000 Hmong refugees who arrived in the Upper Midwest from Southeast Asia beginning in the mid-1970s. Vang’s father, like many ethnic Hmong, fought through decades of civil war in Laos. Facing persecution in the aftermath of the war, the Vangs fled, first to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Yia was born, and eventually to the small town of Port Edwards, Wis.
Vang says food played a central role in his home — his mother grew vegetables and his father cooked meat on a fire pit in the garden — but he and his siblings were hampered by the family kitchen. “Other kids made fun of our school lunches saying they smelled funny,” Vang says. They begged their mother to make American food, like spaghetti and meatballs, and Vang watched Western-style cooking shows like Jacques Pépin’s. The Complete Glitch.
It wasn’t until he went off to college, at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, that Vang gained an appreciation for the cuisine of his youth. He worked in local restaurants and started cooking Hmong dishes for friends. In 2010, he moved to the Twin Cities, where he was a line cook at high-end restaurants like Spoon and Stable.
After a few years, he felt like creating something more accessible to working-class locals. “I was thinking, man, I want to work somewhere my family can go,” he says.
In early 2016, Vang and his cousin, Chris Her, a St. Paul native who was working as an accountant at the time, organized what they thought was a one-time meal at Cook St. Paul, a local restaurant. . They advertised the fare as home-style Hmong cuisine and served dishes like Grilled Hilltribe Chicken, which they smothered in chilli, cilantro and scallions.
Courtesy of Mary Jo Hoffman
“We did 220 covers that day,” Vang explains. “And people started asking when the next one would be.” Vang and Her say that since that time, they’ve averaged about one pop-up a month (Her has since quit his job as an accountant to focus on Union Kitchen full-time); they also host private events and run cooking classes in the Twin Cities.
“There are so many Minnesotans who, regardless of the size of the [Hmong] people, don’t know about Hmong culture and food,” says Eddie Wu, owner of Cook St. Paul. “[Vang] is the Hmong culinary ambassador – he does a very good job of maintaining his culture and identity in an accessible way.”
Union Kitchen pop-ups typically offer an a la carte menu of five or six main courses. Vang likes to connect the origin of each plate to the people. For example, of Mother-in-Law’s Soup – a herbal broth with tender chicken that falls off the bone – he says, “After a woman gives birth, she is supposed to eat this dish three times a day. day for a month. They believe the herbs have medicinal value to help with trauma. But we eat them all the time.
Although many Hmong immigrants have opened restaurants across the Midwest, they often serve what Vang says are more “marketable” cuisines, such as Chinese, Lao or Vietnamese. “There is a sense of shame among many Hmong people,” Vang says. “We never had a country of our own – we were these wandering nomads.”
Vang says it is precisely this nomadic history that makes Hmong food so special. “Hmong people take a bit of culture wherever they are to keep progressing,” he says. “Any nomadic culture – you have to find a way to keep building.” He says that like many Asian cuisines, Hmong food is based on four pillars – protein, rice, broth and spices – and is flavored with lemongrass, chilli, garlic, vinegar and limes.
“In the most basic sense, real traditional Hmong food is some kind of boiled vegetable, like green mustard, with meat, usually pork, and rice,” says Pajau Vangay, who holds a doctorate. candidate at the University of Minnesota studying gut health in local Hmong communities. “It’s really simple but super good comfort food.”
Vangay, who partnered with Vang earlier this year to teach a series of cooking and nutrition workshops, says Hmong cuisine is all about adaptability. “We don’t necessarily have an established kitchen. It’s a dynamic, versatile kitchen that is constantly changing.”
In keeping with this tradition, Vang says he likes to improvise. One of its specialties is the Hmong Hotdish, a riff on the traditional Minnesota casserole that often includes green beans, cream of mushroom soup and tater tots. Vang’s version uses local root vegetables, red coconut curry and seasoned pork sausages.
Courtesy of Mary Jo Horrman
Vang says he is rebuffed by Hmong community elders who question his authenticity. He ignores her. “We’re not in Laos anymore, we’re in the Midwest. I’m just part of the progression.”
Minnesota’s foreign-born population has tripled since 1990, according to census figures, and much of that growth has been concentrated in the Twin Cities, which have large immigrant populations from Latin America, d Southeast Asia and East Africa.
The region’s growing diversity has enhanced the food scene, says Wu. “More and more, the food that people talk about is from immigrants. The Scandinavian people of Minnesota are out there and open to eating new things.”
Vang sees this as an opportunity. Over the past year, he’s taken Union Kitchen on the road, traveling to other Midwestern cities with large Hmong populations. And Vang and her and are looking to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in St. Paul.
“The Twin Cities food community has really embraced us. We’ve come at a perfect time — people are more open to younger immigrants who are looking to preserve our culture,” Vang said.