Union Kitchen's Yia Vang Creates a Home For Hmong Cuisine in the Midwest
Like many immigrants, Yia Vang’s cooking comes with a story, specifically one about a night around a fire on a ranch in the middle of Dripping Springs, Texas. “It was Laotian, Thai and Hmong chefs cooking over a big open fire, laughing and getting super excited about each other, when it dawned on me,” says Vang, the founder/head chef of Union Kitchen, a Twin Cities-based popup. He was cooking at a fundraiser for Courageous Kitchen (an organization that sends aid to Hmong refugees), when he was reminded of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s “I Had a Dream” speech.
“It was when he talked about former slaves and the sons of former slave owners sitting at the table together,” he recalls. “That quote always resonates with me. What moves me is the ability food can have to bring people together. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, our parents wouldn’t want to associate with each other and our people probably fought with each other, but here we are, cooking for a common cause and there’s a glimmer of hope. When you eat with people, there’s a part of your heart and a part of humanity you share. For us, it was important to see that and it was really cool.”
Vang is one of the 68,000 Hmong immigrants living in the Twin Cities area. The Hmong people are an ethnic minority group who originated near the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China around 4,000 to 3,000 BC. They were industrious farmers known for cultivating rice and sending it throughout Asia, but a turbulent history embroiled with conflict, wars and rebellions sent them on an unsettling migration throughout Southeast Asia, where they weren’t always welcome.
From 1790 to the 1860s, the Hmong were still living in remote areas of China, but escalating conflicts with the Imperial Chinese caused them to flee to mountainous regions like present-day Laos (where Yang’s parents are originally from), Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, where they tried to retain their independence, but were oppressed by everything from heavy taxation to political instability and conflicts throughout the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, many were recruited to fight as paramilitary troops for the U.S. in the Vietnam War.
“After the U.S. government pulled out and left Hmong people behind and the communist party won, they started setting up refugee camps on the border of Laos and Thailand, and that’s where my parents ended up,” says Vang, who was born in Thailand, but lived in the refugee camp until the age of five, when his family moved to the Twin Cities via a church-sponsored immigrant program. Vang spent his middle school years living among the Amish in Lancaster County, Penn., and high school and college years in Wisconsin before returning to Minneapolis in 2010 with plans to attend grad school. He ended up working with minority youth organizations, often helping out in the kitchen and putting the kids to work with food prep. “There were kids who didn’t excel at traditional school, but killed it at peeling potatoes,” says Yang.
As a latchkey kid to parents who worked back-to-back shifts, he also found himself helping out in the kitchen at home.
“There was a rule in our house; if you cooked in the kitchen you didn’t have to do dishes, and I hated to do dishes,” says Vang. “I wanted to learn everything, and as long as I could make a mess, I didn’t want to clean.”
While cooking started out as a way to escape cleanup duty, Yang decided to make it a career and worked at Twin Cities-based restaurants including Nighthawks, Borough and Spoon & Stable. He was living with his cousin Chris Her at the time, and the two started cooking at home, often making simple Hmong food for themselves like pork ribs over rice and greens or roasted chicken with aromatics. “We started doing really old-school dishes and after a while took a deeper dive and started to figure out what it was and what we could do with it,” says Vang. The home cooking experiments turned into catering events and eventually popups and teaching cooking classes under the Union Kitchen name in the winter of 2016.
“The problem today is that there’s no frame of reference for Hmong people,” says Yang. “With French food, everyone gets taken back to Paris; with Italian food, you think of Rome; in Northern Minnesota, it’s Norwegian-Swiss. Hmong people don’t have a country of our own, and lot of times when people don’t have a country, they kind of lose their identity. You’re Thai, you’re from Thailand, you’re Laotian, you’re from Laos, you’re Hmong, you’re from…question mark, question mark.”
But even without an official homeland, Vang is still trying to define and tell the story of Hmong food.
“I think about Peter Pan and the lost boys who didn’t have a home, but at the end, they had each other,” says Vang. “I think of that scene in Hook where they’re around the table and have that pretend food fight. That’s like the Hmong people. We don’t have a country, which means we feel like we don’t have an identity, and if we don’t have an identity, people can’t categorize us, so what do we do?”
Early Hmong settlers in the U.S., might have eaten Hmong food at home, but owned or worked in Thai, Vietnamese or Laotian restaurants. “They hid behind other Southeast Asian cultures because they were more marketable,” says Vang. “So our people started being labeled as Thai. We get asked ‘Oh you’re Hmong, does that mean your Thai?’ We get that a lot.”
“Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, our parents wouldn’t want to associate with each other and our people probably fought with each other, but here we are, cooking for a common cause and there’s a glimmer of hope."
But defining the food of a nomadic tribe that absorbed their ingredient and cooking techniques from all over Southeast Asia was challenging even for Vang. “It was hard to answer that question, so a Chinese-American friend of mine walked me through the process,” he says of conceiving Hmong dishes for Union Kitchen events. “It’s not a type of food, it’s a philosophy of food, a way of thinking about food. It got me thinking about my parents and grandparents, and what they had to do when they were living in Laos. They learned all these techniques and ways of cooking, planting and gardening from the Laotians and the Thais and they formed their own techniques, flavors and identity. Wherever the Hmong have gone, they’ve always been able to adapt to the area, and it made the most sense that we would adapt to Minnesota in the way we use produce and product. We started thinking about Hmong food as a way of foraging and gathering from other cultures to learn and be innovative.”
For Vang, that means pok pok salad made with Midwestern produce instead of papaya. “We don’t have papaya growing locally,” he says. “We started thinking about the texture of papaya, so we dorked around with unripe cantaloupe, radishes and celery root, but kept all the rest of the flavors the same.” No matter where the crunchy texture comes from, the Hmong influence comes through via a pungent pok pok sauce made with crab paste, dried shrimp, fish sauce and tamarind.
Perhaps the best example of a Midwestern-Hmong mash-up is Vang’s take on a classic tater tot hot dish. “It’s a very Minnesotan thing,” he laughs. “It’s what Lutheran grandmothers would make for church. In Northern Minnesota, it would be a can of cream of tomato soup, some kind of canned vegetable and ground beef. You mix everything in a casserole pan, top it off with tater tots and throw it in the oven.”
Vang’s version is made with Hmong pork sausage (made with a mix of shoulder and belly, ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce and garlic) local root vegetables and a Northern Thai coconut curry he reduces down to a gravy. They keep the classic tater tots on top and serve the casserole with a squirt of lime and sprinkling of scallions and cilantro.
“As funny as it is, for me it’s the narrative of a tater tot hot dish,” says Vang. “You look back at the ’20s and ’30s here in Minnesota, and people didn’t have much, but if they could scrounge all this together, they were able to bring it to a church potluck. So this tater tot hot dish came from meager beginnings, and that’s the story of our people.”
But no matter the inspiration or adaptation, the core of a Hmong meal contains four elements—a protein, a rice (often purple sticky rice) and broth with vegetables and hot sauce. “That’s one of the central parts,” says Vang. “The hot sauce brings spice and depth, so it’s important. Sometimes we work harder on our hot sauce than we do on the protein.”
While Vang makes a few different sauces, the most popular are a mint and Thai basil-flecked Tiger Bite and a spicy roasted tomato. Vang’s mom, Pang, still helps make both, along with her own version of sambal.
“We grew up watching our parents make sauces,” says Vang. “It’s just throwing everything into a mortar and pestle and mashing it down like a paste. In essence, we use the same ingredients our parents used, but we tweak things.
Aside from chilies, Hmong dishes are usually flavored with Thai basil, Hmong cilantro (with longer stems that are used more than the leaves), culantro and mint, bean sprouts for crunch and lime or rice vinegar for acid. “Our sofrito is lemongrass, ginger and garlic,” says Vang. “A lot of our food is based on soups and stews and sauce-y foods because that’s how they cook in Laos. You go out to the fields and when you come back for dinner it’s ready. You can feed more people that way too.”
Proteins are commonly beef, chicken, duck or pork, grilled over fire until well done. “Sometimes it gets dry and I get frustrated when my parents do it,” laughs Vang. “They didn’t have a lot of meat, so you had to cook it until it was dry and well done. But we are also all about the fat, you want a good rendering of pork fat.”
But even if the meat is kept a little too long over the fire, it only helps encourage another vital part of the Hmong meal—interaction, storytelling and sharing.
“When we grill, it’s almost like dinner theater,” says Vang. “They come in, they see the grill, the sizzling, the smoke. People are drawn to smoke—it smells so good."
Once the skewers come off the grill, they’re brought out and served family-style with sauces, rice and lettuce for wraps.
“When we do skewers, people hover over the grill and end up talking to us and each other,” says Vang. “Food without interaction is boring, it’s like that person who eats lunch at their desk everyday. We want to make food interactive. You take that part out, and it’s just fueling our body.” And the interaction only helps strengthen Vang’s mission to spread knowledge about Hmong people and cuisine.
"Wherever the Hmong have gone, they’ve always been able to adapt to the area, and it made the most sense that we would adapt to Minnesota in the way we use produce and product. We started thinking about Hmong food as a way of foraging and gathering from other cultures to learn and be innovative.”
Vang and Her continue to tell their story through every pop-up, cooking class and charity event, their in-the-works brick and mortar restaurant will serve as a true blank canvas where Vang can paint his own culinary journey from Thailand to the Twin Cities to Pennsylvania and back to the Midwest. The menu will include dishes like grilled pork chops with vermicelli noodles, fermented mustard greens and Tiger Bite sauce; a red coconut curry with rabbit (called khao poon), and a dish called “with purple sticky rice” that includes rice as the main dish, and four or five small plates of things like deep-fried crispy chicken, chicken heart skewers and hot sauce inspired by his memories of pairing rice with fast food growing up in the states.
“Hmong doesn’t mean being ashamed of who you are, it actually means freedom,” says Vang. “You’re free to be innovative and that’s the message we want to send to our people.”
“It’s super interesting to see how important food is in our culture, and for us it’s about telling that story,” he says. “You don’t need a homeland, you don’t a need a flag and you don’t need a national anthem to have your own culture. It sounds kind of dorky but who you are is from the inside, and the people around you. As much as people dog on America, I love it here. I love the freedom we have and the ability to hustle and grind it out. That’s been a part of our people. We want all of that to reflect in our food.”