Wednesday, October 28, 2009
By JOAN OBRA
The Fresno Bee
Quick question: Can you name three Hmong dishes? If you can't, that's no surprise.
For even in the San Joaquin Valley, home to one of the country's largest Hmong populations, the cuisine of this Southeast Asian group largely remains a mystery.
But a new book could change that. "Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America" (University of Minnesota Press, $29.95) is a landmark work that chronicles the Hmong experience -- from traditional foods in the mountains of Laos, to dishes they share with other Southeast Asian cultures, and finally, to new meals that evolved in America.
Most of these dishes aren't served in restaurants.
"It's very much a cooking culture," says co-author Sami Scripter. "I learned from just being involved."
"Cooking from the Heart" is the fruit of a long friendship between Scripter and co-author Sheng Yang. The two met more than 25 years ago, when Scripter worked at the elementary school Yang attended in Portland, Ore.
Scripter's daughter was the same age as Yang, and the two families became close. Yang even lived with the Scripters for about a year to improve her English.
Their book notes that they prepared meals together: "Sami learned to cook rice the Hmong way using an hourglass-shaped pot and woven basket steamer, and Sheng learned how to make (Sami's husband's) favorite dinner: meat loaf, baked potatoes and peach pie."
As Scripter learned more secrets of the Hmong kitchen, idle talk of penning a cookbook turned into a project that took her to Hmong communities across the country.
Recipes include ones from Fresno, such as the salty, spicy, tempura-battered shrimp made by the mother-in-law of Yang's daughter.
Indeed, the Valley is an ideal place to use this cookbook. For it's one of the few places in the United States where the ingredients are widespread.
Browse through the Asian sections in Save Mart supermarkets, and you can make stir fries with beef, string beans and oyster sauce, or chicken wings stuffed with vegetables, vermicelli noodles and ground pork.
If you visit farmers markets, ask Southeast Asian growers to bring fresh lemongrass and Thai chili peppers. With these staples and Save Mart's Asian condiments, you can cook dishes such as chicken drumsticks with Hmong-style barbecue sauce and cracked crabs flavored with chilies, coconut milk and herbs.
And if you shop at the Valley's Asian markets, you're in for a treat.
Buy Hmong sausage and cook it with cabbage. Or look for toasted sticky rice flour and make larb, a popular Laotian salad of ground meat or fish that's mixed with lots of seasonings, then served with lettuce and sticky rice.
Local resources can help you move beyond the book. For example, Scripter and Yang describe some of the herbal medicines used extensively by the Hmong, but they don't delve deeply into it.
Herbal medicine "is as much about the practitioner as it is about the herbs itself," Scripter says. "You go to that person and that person says, 'When did the rash start? Tell me about this, tell me about that.' Almost always, (the treatment) is not just one herb but it's several of them together."
At the University of California Kearney Agricultural Center in Parlier, a new garden offers the public a rare look at about 50 of these herbs. As perhaps the only Hmong research garden in the country, it includes common and scientific names for the plants.
"They're not really common on California farms," says UC farm adviser Richard Molinar, who created the garden with his field assistant, Michael Yang.
A recent tour with local Hmong herbalists showed the overlap between the culinary and medicinal. To treat a rash, bruise some garlic chives and rub them into the skin, May Xiong says.
Vietnamese coriander (also known as Vietnamese mint, laksa leaf and luam laws in Hmong), helps blood clot, she adds.
Xiong and others collected a mix of herbs and tied them into a bundle. Combined with chicken in a soup, it helps mothers heal after giving birth, they say.
In their book, Scripter and Sheng Yang include a recipe for this soup.
"Women who eat this soup after bearing a child also maintain strong bones in old age," they write.
Still other herbs are strictly medicinal, with an unpleasant flavor. "Cooking from the Heart" describes such a soup that Sheng Yang's sister ate after breaking her leg and pelvis in a sledding accident. She healed so quickly, it "astounded" the Western health professionals.
Of course, using these herbs properly requires the expertise of a Hmong herbalist. Visit Xiong in XC Supermarket (formerly TC Supermarket) at East Kings Canyon Road and Winery Avenue.
It's just one more reason to explore local Asian markets.
"A person has got to be willing to step out of what they are accustomed to," Scripter says. To experience all that Hmong cuisine has to offer, "you've got to be willing to go into an Asian grocery store and figure out what you're looking at."