Laab and Som Tum

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Cassoulets may be good for the winter, but no one wants a piping hot dish in the summer unless it’s fresh off a grill. Enter the ever-refreshing, oft-overlooked salad. If you’re already sick and tired of the myriad variations of mixed green, caprese, or fruit salads, try your greens in a new way. Som tum, a Thai papaya salad, plays host to a variety of textures ranging from crunchy to chewy — the tangy zip of lime juice and salt of fish sauce highlight the slight sweetness of green papaya. Laab esan, a ground beef salad, features fresh mint, toasted rice powder, green onions, and the salty-tang of the fish sauce / lime flavor combo. Wrap it up with some sticky rice in a lettuce leaf and you’ve got the ultimate in refreshing summer food. We tested these dishes from four Thai restaurants across the Twin Cities to produce the tasting notes which follow. If you prefer to experience food in your own kitchen, try the recipes below.

Among the multitude of Thai eateries in the area, we selected locations including Sen Yai Sen Lek in northeast Minneapolis, Ruam Mit Thai in downtown St. Paul, True Thai in Seward, and Pad Thai on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. Each restaurant offered its own spin on the dishes, but among them we sought a light, balanced option which didn’t overly stress a salty, tangy, or sweet note over all others. The som tum had a lower variance across the board, while laab from one restaurant tasted quite different from the next.

SOM TUM

Pad Thai’s version featured big chunks of tomato and a middle-of-the-road flavor — not very strongly flavored in any which way. At $4.95 per serving, this was the most economical of those we sampled. Sen Yai Sen Lek’s was, on one visit, the sweetest of the four due to an ever-so-slightly riper papaya — jazzed up with a bit of nam pla prik, or spicy fish sauce, the dish worked quite well. The shredded dried shrimp on top provided a welcome, slightly fishy dimension. True Thai’s version added a bit of shredded carrot to the papaya-tomato-green bean base, which made for extra crunch and sweetness. Ruam Mit Thai, meanwhile, serves their version with small dried shrimp atop the bed of papaya. A thin-sliced, slightly sweet-and-spicy beef jerky served on the side adds a chewy texture to the mix and a bit more substance to those afraid of going vegetarian.

LAAB ESAN

In terms of flavor, these salads were a bit more varied. The version from True Thai, the only one comprised of finely chopped, thinly sliced beef (as opposed to ground beef) featured a tangy, well-balanced flavor and was the best-tasting after a night in the fridge, due to its chewy texture. Ruam Mit’s version, the best-seasoned of the bunch, was an ideal balance of salty-tangy-spicy, tempered by the traditional sticky rice, cucumber, and lettuce leaves. On a recent visit, Pad Thai’s rendition prominently featured off-puttingly sweet sautéed red onions, while on another occasion we were served an overly peppery version of the salad. Sen Yai Sen Lek’s laab gai (the restaurant serves only chicken laab, pictured below) brought the zing of sliced lemongrass to the forefront, with the nuttiness of the toasted rice powder to temper the flavor.

Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America

Lori Writer / Heavy Table
Lori Writer / Heavy Table

“In the isolated mountain villages of their Laotian homeland, cooking was… the stuff of tradition, not the written word. Good Hmong cooks learned from their elders which ingredients to use, and how much of each, by sight, feel, and taste.  Recipes were never written down and followed ‘to the letter.’ Cooking, like other Hmong arts and crafts, came ‘from the heart.'”

(From Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America by Sami Scripter and Sheng Yangpublished this month by the University of Minnesota Press ($29.95; 248 pages, hardcover with color photos, available at Hmong ABC Bookstore at 298 University Ave. W in St. Paul).

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Sheng Yang, and her parents and four siblings, immigrated to the United States — first to Kentucky, then Oklahoma, and then, Oregon —  in 1979, when she was nine. Sami Scripter, married and tending to her growing family, was Sheng’s neighbor in Portland, OR. Sami worked as an educator at Sheng’s elementary school. Speaking to a small audience at the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul on Thursday, Scripter recalls, “One year you didn’t know what Hmong was, and the next year a quarter of the children in school were Hmong.”

Yang says that over the years their “two families have become almost one.” Scripter adds, “We got to know each other the way neighbors know each other.” They gardened together in the Scripter’s backyard using seeds Sheng’s mother had carried from Laos and Thailand. Sami taught Sheng and her mother how to preserve raspberry jam.

As a sixth grader, to improve her English, Sheng lived with the Scripters, rooming with Sami’s daughter, Emily, in a bunk bed Don Scripter built for the two girls. “Sami learned to cook rice the Hmong way using an hourglass-shaped pot and woven basket steamer, and Sheng learned how to make… meatloaf, baked potatoes, and peach pie,” the authors write.

A Day in the Kitchen of a Hmong Family

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

“The clan is the cornerstone of the Hmong Community,” says Dara Kasouaher. Kasouaher, who is Hmong, was born in Milwaukee, WI.  Her younger brother was also born in the US, but her parents and three elder sisters immigrated in August 1976. According to the 2006 American Community Survey, there are approximately 88,000 Hmong living in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Kasouaher’s sister, Maykao Hang, says there are 18 clans living in Minnesota.

Cooking for extended family is an important part of everyday life for the Hmong. Hang describes one family meal that required “nine racks of ribs from Sam’s Club, just to prepare one dish.” Laughing, she says: “There’s a reason I have a pot so large I can fit my four-year-old in.”

A new cookbook by Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang called Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America provides context for local Hmong cooking (look for the Heavy Table’s review of the book on Friday, May 22). When the Hmong fled “Indochina, mostly… the mountains of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam”…”they brought to their new homes a simple, earthy cuisine and cooking traditions that reflected a rural lifestyle and ancient culture.”

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

The Heavy Table wanted to get a better sense of Hmong home cooking, so we asked Kasouaher if we could spend a day cooking with her. She enthusiastically agreed, but added: “In order to experience real Hmong cooking, you need a large group of women cooking together.” She rounded up her mother, Sua Yang, and her sisters Maykao Hang and Naly Yang (her eldest sister has returned to Laos) for a day of cooking in Hang’s home in Woodbury, MN. “This is what we do on weekends anyway,” Kasouaher says. While we shopped and cooked, their husbands and young children entertained themselves in the yard, playing with rubber-band jump ropes they’d made themselves, and occasionally stopping in the kitchen to help chop cilantro or beef or to snack on a sliver of green papaya.