A Taste of Hmong History
The origin of the Hmong may be traced back to Central Siberia. They migrated to Northern China then further south to the fertile lands of the Yellow River. War drove them onward to Hunan and Hupeh provinces where they established a separate kingdom spanning from the fourth to the tenth century A.D. After the Manchu dynasty succeeded in destroying the Hmong realm, the Hmong fled to the mountainous regions of Guizhou, Szechwan and Yunan provinces. Continued persecution led some further south. During the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of Hmong crossed into Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. After World War II, the French had a strong presence in South East Asia and were followed by the U.S. in the Vietnam conflict. The Hmong supported both foreign powers. In Laos they were the cast of guerrilla fighters hired by the CIA in the secret war against Laotian communists. In 1975 communists gained control of Laos and the U.S. pulled out. The Hmong had no choice but to surrender or flee. Most chose to escape to Thailand, crossing the Mekong river to live in refugee camps. After the U.S. government officially acknowledged American presence in Laos and the aid of the Hmong soldiers, the Hmong began to immigrate to the U.S. and other countries including France, Australia and Canada.
In Laos, the Hmong practiced slash and burn farming. After choosing an area, they would clear away brush, pile it and use it to burn all the trees and plant life. The ash was spread throughout the field as fertilizer. Corn, fruit and vegetables were planted in April and harvested in August. Opium, the Hmong’s only cash crop, was then planted and harvested in January.
When the Hmong people came to the U.S. they a large portion of them continued to earn their livelihood through agriculture. In Central Wisconsin, ginseng, a profitable product which required manual hand labor became an ideal way for the Hmong people to use their skills. This in turn attracted a large population of Hmong to the Central Wisconsin area. Since that time, many Hmong families have advanced and become integrated into other areas of the economy. Although agriculture is no longer a main component of life for most Hmong families, many families still have gardens. It is common for a community of Hmong families to rent a large areas of farm land to grow traditional crops that can not be bought at a local grocery store.
Typical US Hmong Diet
The core taste of Hmong food are the same but as with most food, geographical location contribute to the different variations of specific dishes. For the most part though, a lot of the same ingredients are use and the basic method of preparations are similar.
From my experience growing up, most Hmong families I know including my own, normally made meals from scratch. Aside from pizza, most home meals did not include pre-made or canned dinners. In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I ate a microwave dinner – and a few of those times it was out of curiosity.
Fast forward 20 years and I see a vastly different diet among Hmong people. Yes, a lot of family still eat the traditional foods, but now, even my parents make an occasional Taco Bell run or buy frozen pizza.
As for my family, we have a healthy mix of 60/40, sixty being Hmong of course. My kids often start the day with the standard cereal or toast, eggs and bacon for breakfast. For lunch and Dinner we often have Hmong food with a splatter of casserole or spaghetti thrown in every once in a while. For football games and late night snacks, we will sometimes do pizza and chips. Rice is still a staple in our family and my kids will often eat it plain with water attempt skip the meat and veggies.
For our Hmong meals, we use fresh vegetable and meat when possible and try to make everything from scratch. Canned or packaged ingredients are used for items that are not freshly available such as bamboo shoots.
Family gathering or parties are often when the very traditional dishes are prepared. These include the bitter beef stew, Hmong eggrolls and finely ground beef salad to the sweat tapioca drink.
What’s for Dinner
A meal normally consisted of three base item: rice, meat and vegetable green (in our family we have a fourth, spicy peppers). There are two types of rice that is commonly served. The most common and normally served with every meal is a long grain rice (jasmine) that is steamed. The other is a short grain rice (often translated as sticky rice) that is often dyed a red/maroon color and is meant to be eaten by hand as it is difficult to handle with utensils. The meat can be anything with the most common being chicken, pork, beef, and fish (sheep and goat are not as common in the Hmong diet). Vegetables include common items such as green beans, onions, cabbage and asparagus. It also includes less common items such as mustard greens, bitter mellon and lemongrass. Some of the other plants are even more exotic and/or even been seen as poisonous. This includes items such as plants of eastern nightshade (not the berries) and various types of medicinal plants.
Once you start preparing and eating some of the recipe, you will discover that a lot of it is simple to make. Some of it as simple as cutting up a chicken, adding salt, msg, lemon grass and a few medicinal plant leaves.