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.

Hmong Kitchen in America Book Signings

Tomorrow (Saturday, May 23) join authors Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang, of Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America for two book signings. The first is at 10:30am at the Mill City Farmers Market. The second is at 2pm at the Barnes & Noble-HarMar Mall, 2100 N. Snelling Ave., Roseville.

Hmong Kitchen in America Book Event

Tomorrow afternoon (Thursday, May 21) join authors Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang of Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America for a book talk, signing, and food sampling. The event runs from 3-5pm at the Hmong Cultural Center, 995 University Ave. W, Suite 214, Sunrise Market Building, St. Paul.

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.