When I think of all the things that define me as a Minnesotan, and why I hold such pride in our coffee-pot-shaped state, I need no further argument than the many amazing Hmong farmers at the Kingfield Farmers Market. I’d love to impress upon readers how wonderfully flavorful real Hmong food is, or what generous, welcoming and hospitable people they are, but I have neither words enough to express my celebration nor time enough to proclaim it properly. I will, however, try to illuminate the presence of the Hmong farmers in the local food scene, and why we are so lucky they are here.
When you are purchasing a Hmong family’s vegetables, you are doing business with people who have likely been growing vegetables without a break for more than 4,000 years. I can’t wrap my brain around the amount of folklore, knowledge and tradition that comes along with that. In talking with two of our vendors, Ma and Lue Yang of St. Paul I was further amazed by the fact that with very few exceptions, the vegetables grown here were completely unknown to Hmong farmers when they arrived the U.S. Even if you are a gardener or farmer, could you say that you could do the reverse with similar ease and adaptability? Go to a foreign land and cultivate the local food as your livelihood? By hand? As a refugee with little starting capital? With an unfamiliar language, culture and all other factors that come with human migration to boot? A feat deserving of great praise to be sure.
Boon Yang, another grower at Kingfield Farmer’s Market has experienced the farming culture in the Laos, the mass exodus to the U.S. by way of Thailand after the Vietnam War, and today he tends his fields just outside the northwest metro suburbs. Boon says he can cultivate more land easier, but one can only farm for half of the year here, unlike in tropical Laos. He holds agriculture as one of the defining features of Hmong culture, yet observes the generations growing up on American soil to have less than traditional connection with the land, pursuing work in other sectors. Perhaps with frequent and ample patronage, we will not only promote more family-grown vegetables, but also a new crop of American-born Hmong farmers, a treasure Minnesota can’t afford to lose.
Below is a recipe for Laab. Pronounced “La,” the national dish of Laos is perfect for a farmer’s market grocery list! Be sure to follow a fundamental rule of Hmong food preparation: make your food to your taste. Add more of your favorite ingredients, remove those you dislike, experiment with unknown flavors. The lettuce leaves are vessels to serve the laab; eat in a similar fashion as a taco or burrito.
Hmong Chicken Laab
From “Cooking From The Heart, The Hmong Kitchen In America” By Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang, University of Minnesota Press
Use only fresh, blemish-free herbs, hand-chopped and sliced because a food processor will bruise them. Loosely pack the herbs into the measuring cup. Although you can use ground chicken or turkey, chopping the meat yourself gives the dish a finer, more desirable texture.
— 2 whole boneless chicken breasts or 3 lbs ground chicken or turkey
— Juice of 2 large limes, plus 1 lime for garnish
— 2 tbsp rice wine
— 2 tsp minced fresh ginger (for a more traditional taste, substitute galanga)
— 1 stalk minced lemongrass, tough outer leaves, root and top several inches removed
— 3 tsp grated lemon peel
— 2 small hot chili peppers, minced, or 1 tsp crushed chili flakes
— 1 clove garlic, minced
— 1 tbsp fish sauce
— 1½ tsp salt
— ½ tsp white pepper
— 3 tbsp Toasted Sticky Rice Flour
— 1 chicken bouillon cube
— 1 heaping cup chopped fresh mint
— 1 heaping cup chopped cilantro
— 1 bunch of green onions, green part chopped, white part sliced diagonally
— ½ c chopped Thai basil
— 1 large head leaf lettuce (16 leaves, for wrappers)
— Several additional stems of mint and cilantro, for garnish
— On a large, clean chopping board, chop the chicken with a heavy knife or cleaver. As you chop, fold the chicken over on itself until the meat is very finely chopped.
— Put the meat in a large bowl and squeeze the lime juice over it.
— Add the rice wine.
— Cook the chicken mixture in a nonstick skillet (don’t use any oil) over medium-high heat, tossing and stirring constantly just until the meat turns white.
— Return the mixture with any accumulated juice to the bowl to cool to room temperature.
— Prepare the fresh herbs. Add the ginger (or galanga), lemongrass, lemon peel, chili peppers (or crushed chili flakes), garlic, fish sauce, salt, white pepper and rice flour to the cooler mixture.
— Break apart the chicken bouillon cube and sprinkle it on top. Toss the ingredients together until they are well mixed.
— Then add the mint, cilantro, green onions and Thai basil.
— Gently toss everything together.
— Break lettuce leaves away from the head, and wash and dry them.