‘A dish my mom made’: the roots of Minnesota’s Hmong cuisine

Chef Yia Vang tells his parents’ story through his spirited interpretations of Hmong home cooking in Minneapolis.

Photograph by Stephanie Rau
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Chef Yia Vang uses food as a catalyst for storytelling and firmly believes that every dish has a narrative. Yia fuses local Minnesotan traditions with bold flavors from back home in East and Southeast Asia to bring Hmong fare to American palates.

Photograph by Stephanie Rau

Between Rose Nylund from The Golden Girls and the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, it’s easy to get the impression that Minnesota’s people are as white as the snow that typically covers the ground from November through April. Touch down in Minneapolis and start exploring its neighborhoods, however, and you’ll quickly discover that this state is deeply connected to the outside world (Minnesota has one of the highest per capita number of refugees). Food from (and inspired by) places all over the world is plentiful, and Minnesota has distinct Somali, Mexican, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern culinary scenes, among others.

The Hmong people of China and Southeast Asia are one of Minnesota’s most distinctive groups. Minneapolis-St.Paul has the largest percentage of Hmong residents of any city in the U.S., and the second largest population overall after California. Hmong food—typically balanced between heat (usually from hot sauce), neutral rice for sopping up and balancing bold flavors, fresh vegetables, and fatty richness from proteins such as pork or poultry—is one of the state’s great culinary secrets. Hmong farmers are mainstays at the many farmers markets here, and the Hmong American Farmers Association farm in West Saint Paul, MN supplies produce and flowers to hundreds of clients in the region.

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Chef Yia Vang sources local, seasonal ingredients at the Hmong Farmers Market in St. Paul, MN.

Inspired by stories of passionately crafted Hmong cuisine in the Upper Midwest, National Geographic and All-Clad traveled to Minnesota to discover the Hmong food scene that’s flourishing in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. That includes everything from indoor marketplaces with sprawling Hmong food courts (Hmongtown and Hmong Village in St. Paul) to food trucks (including Hmong Eatery, Happy Street Foods, and Qab Mib) to Hmong chefs running the kitchens at restaurants with Vietnamese, Thai, or Chinese branding.

One of the scene’s rising stars—and one of its most heartfelt advocates—is Yia Vang, whose Union Hmong Kitchen project has evolved from a pop-up dinner series into a food truck residency at Sociable Cider Werks in Northeast Minneapolis. Yia met up with former mentor and James Beard Award-wining Chef, Gavin Kaysen—owner of Spoon and Stable where Yia worked as a line cook years ago—to talk Hmong food.

“Here in the Upper Midwest, in the past 10 years, Hmong people have been able to move away from that umbrella of ‘oh, it’s Asian food,’” says Vang. “Some of the first Hmong restaurants, you’ll look at the menu and it’ll have 50 different things from cashew chicken to satays to pho to Pad Thai—it had everything on it.”

Now, as the first and second generations of Hmong children grow up in American schools and feel increasingly comfortable crossing cultures and embracing their roots, the cuisine has an opportunity to blossom. Hmong people in Minnesota are now able to define their own food, Vang says, and explain what makes it different. “I tell people Hmong food isn’t a type of food, it’s a philosophy of food,” he says. “It’s a way of thinking about food. When you come to my mom’s house and she’s cooking for you, from the moment you get there to the moment you leave, everything you’ve experienced, that’s part of Hmong food.”

It is, Vang explains, first and foremost a cuisine for feeding friends and family at home, and that “just like family” connection imparted by his parents informs everything he does. “There’s a Hmong saying, 'come and eat'—it’s the most common phrase you’ll hear in our house,” says Vang. “You come in and we’re making food—you’re joining us! And, in our culture, being hospitable doesn’t mean just giving you enough food to eat—I’m going to overbless you so when you leave, you can take some with you.”

Food for Vang always connects back to the story of his parents, their sometimes grueling journey to America, and the sacrifices they made. “It changes the way you go through life, and it changes the way I cook,” he says. “For me, it’s not—‘oh, here’s a great idea I had!’ It’s a dish my mom made for us growing up.” Vang cites his mom’s hot sauce, which has become beloved by numerous chefs. She makes massive batches of the stuff each season to support his restaurant and to share with friends.

Vang’s father, too, has given him lessons in food—Vang won a recent contest with his dad’s Hmong sausage recipe. “I told him we won a contest with this, and he laughed. He said, ‘People like that stuff?’ Dad, you don’t know! People love it! Those things are so humbling to me—my mom and dad are doing what they’re doing, and I get to tell their story.” A surge in curiosity on the part of the general public has helped, too—Minnesotans aren’t as scared by heat or funk as they used to be, and they ask more questions. "They want to know more about what they’re eating," says Vang. “There’s a lot of young foodie people so with Hmong food, they’re really open to it.”

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Yia teaches his former mentor Chef Gavin Kaysen how to make a traditional Hmong dish that brings him back to childhood memories of watching his mom cook in the kitchen after school.

Vang’s recipe for Pan-Seared Cornish Game Hens captures the essence of his cooking—it’s comforting, it connects with the produce of the land, but its flavors are deeply layered and anything but simple. A Copper Core All-Clad sauté pan puts a nice sear on the poultry that gives it great flavor and a crisp texture. “I always tell people, once you go All-Clad, it’s hard to go back,” says Vang.

Like everything he makes, Vang’s game hen recipe connects back to his Hmong roots, and his parents. “Life’s pretty simple for me, man. Tell their story through the food we make, and the food we make is actually the food they’ve made for us."

See below for the full recipe.

Pan-Seared Cornish Game Hen with Sautéed Hmong Mustard Greens and Cherry Tomato Chili Sauce

James Norton is the food editor for The Growler Magazine in St. Paul, MN.

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