Larb, a traditional Hmong meat salad

Friday, July 17, 2009

July 17, 10:19 AM

This chicken larb is eatten with lettuce leaves

The Hmong people are from Southeast Asia. There is a sizable Hmong community in Atlanta, though most of us have little information about their culture. For much of America, the film Gran Torino, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, was our first look into this community. The film takes place in Michigan and explores these fascinating people who have fled their homeland and are trying to find a way to fit in without losing their identity.

The largest Hmong population remains in China, but many have left because of persecution. During the Vietnam War, they were recruited by the CIA. Among other duties, they rescued American airmen who had to ditch their planes in the thick rain forest. When the US pulled out, the Hmong were mostly left behind. During the 1980s, many Hmong were housed in Thai refugee camps. Though some have stayed in Thailand, many have resettled in countries such as the United States, French Guiana, and France. Hmong have remained identifiable as a separate group because they have maintained their own language, customs, and ways of life while adopting the ways of the country in which they live. The language was not even written down until the 1950s. There is always fear that as the older generations pass on, the knowledge of the Hmong among Hmong-Americans will die as well.

Few restaurants serve the cuisine exclusively, though a few dishes can be found on Thai menus. Until recently, it was difficult to even find recipes. I recently heard an interview on the NPR program The Splendid Table about a new cookbook that preserves the culinary traditions of the Hmong called Cooking from the Heart. Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang gathered more than 100 recipes from Hmong-American kitchens. The authors worked with all 18 Hmong clans to gather and document, for the very first time, their recipes and traditions.

A typical Hmong dinner might include soup, sticky rice, a spicy chili condiment called simply pepper, a dish with meat and vegetables, plus a dish containing only vegetables. The meat and vegetable dish is often larb, virtually the national dish, since it can be made with any finely chopped meat. Larb is a kind of meat salad containing mint, cilantro and chili. It is eaten with lettuce leaves. To make it, check out this Larb recipe on the Splendid Table site.

The photos are of chicken larb and green papaya salad from Siam Thai located on the square in Decatur.


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