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.