Forgotten Cuisines of America, Part 2


The Hmong were a mountain people living in northern Laos when the Vietnam War spilled across the border. Some became allies of the U.S., and when the war ended in 1975 many were resettled in this country by the American government—mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. By 2000, our Hmong population had grown to nearly 200,000, with 30,000 living in Wisconsin alone. I remember seeing them on the fringes of Green Bay when they first arrived, quite bewildered and with few institutions to assist them. And I wondered why the government had settled them so far from any other Asian-American community.

To find out the fate of the Hmong in Wisconsin in the ensuing years, I returned to the Badger State recently. I'm happy to report there were many Hmong vendors in Milwaukee and Madison farmers markets, selling, in addition to the usual vegetables, Asian herbs, lemongrass, and pandan.

There were also a few established Hmong restaurants in Madison and Milwaukee. Typically, these restaurants offer a menu heavy with Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai dishes. "Where my parents lived in Laos," one young server explained at Rice Palace in Milwaukee, "we ate food from all the surrounding countries, so we know how to make Vietnamese banh mi and Thai larb." But amid the stir-fries, egg foo youngs, and noodle soups, you can find a handful of native Hmong dishes.

Hmong food

The archetypical dish is a communal soup ladled from a shiny aluminum tureen. It's usually made with pork, and the bones are used to make a pungent broth of phô-like complexity. Herbs are added into that inky darkness, along with a profusion of greens (Napa cabbage and the mustard greens called gai choy are favorites), fatty chunks of pork, and boiled eggs that have been lightly breaded and then fried, making them thrice-cooked as they land in bubbling broth.

In addition to these hearty soups, the menu at Taste of Asia in Madison also includes Hmong spring rolls and a dish reminiscent of Hainanese chicken. "Vang Pao's steamed chicken" is named after a Hmong general who assisted the Americans during their incursion into Laos.

Rice Palace 3730 West National Avenue, Milwaukee, WI (414-383-3156)

Taste of Asia 2817 East Washington Avenue, Madison, WI (608-240-0762)

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