Hmong cooking is simple, constantly adapting

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Kia Her, owner of Sy-Am Garden Thai restaurant on West Thomas Street in Wausau, adds sliced cucumbers to the wok where the chicken is cooking. (Photo by Xai Kha/Wausau Daily Herald)

Through the years, as members of the Hmong community left Southeast Asia for a new life in the United States, many aspects of their lives changed, including the way they cook, leaving Hmong cooking in a constant state of transition.

"The food we make is so different in this country," said Kia Her, owner of Sy-Am Garden Thai Restaurant in Wausau. "Here, you can find so many different kinds of sauces and vegetables. In the old country, you cooked with only oil and salt, or with MSG if you could afford it."

Neng Chang, owner of Sawadee Thai Restaurant in Wausau, said that in Laos, where he grew up, cooking was simple. People used organic ingredients grown in their own gardens.

"In Laos, we tried to eat only healthy things. We didn't want to consume food that wasn't going to be beneficial for our body," said Chang, who immigrated to the United States in 1987.

Hmong cooking is heavily influenced by the cuisine of other Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand and China. Though it can be spicy at times, traditional Hmong cooking notably is bland, the 31-year-old Her said.

"Hmong cooking is very plain and simple. Back in the old days, you didn't have a lot of ingredients to cook with," she said. "A meal would include one kind of vegetable, with a side of white rice. If you were lucky enough to have meat -- usually pork, chicken or beef -- you would just boil it in a pot of water until it was cooked through."

Because most meat is boiled, soups and stews also are popular dishes, Chang said. Steamed fish, seasoned only with salt and oil, is common as well.

"Making these dishes here in America, they taste so much better," said Chang, 41, of Wausau, who attended cooking school in Thailand before opening Sawadee in 2003. "Here, you can just go to the supermarket and buy anything you want for your stews and stir-frys. It's a very different story."

In the United States, many Hmong recipes have been altered to incorporate ingredients such as tofu, hot peppers, green onion and cilantro, Her said.

One thing that has remained unchanged, however, is the use of white rice, which Her calls "a staple" of Hmong and most other Southeast Asian cuisine.

"Some Hmong food still tastes plain, but a lot of our recipes were created after our people started coming to America," said Her, who taught herself to cook as a young girl in Thailand before coming to the United States in 1988. "But really, Hmong cooking is something you have to experience and taste for yourself to really understand it."


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