When people think about the immigrant influence on Wisconsin's culinary culture, typically it's Europeans of the late 19th century who come to mind (read: cheese, brats, beer). But myriad ethnic groups from both before and after that time have flavored the foodways of our region. Case in point: the Hmong, relatively recent arrivals whose remarkable heritage of gardening - evident at area farmers' markets - seasons regional menus with pea and squash vines, hon tsai tai, bitter melon and other traditional Asian vegetables.
To learn how to cook authentically with such little-known ingredients, shoppers often look to Hmong market vendors for advice. Published recipes have been few and far between because Hmong cooks rarely use measurements, and seasonal variation is a cornerstone of their cuisine (plus they had no written language until 1950, so "recipes" were passed along orally). Now, however, for the first time, there's a mainstream cookbook about Hmong cooking. And a wonderful guide it is.
Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America, written by former neighbors Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang and just published by the University of Minnesota Press, has more than 100 recipes that express the "simple, earthy, fiery and fresh" nature of Hmong food. The book is geared for Americans who want to know more about this exciting, healthful cuisine and is especially useful for those in Wisconsin, Minnesota and California, states where the Hmong American population - and its presence at farmers' markets - is greatest. It also speaks to young Hmong men and women who, as the authors write, "yearn for the tastes and fragrances they remember from their childhood."
Gracefully, intelligently written, Cooking from the Heart documents the way traditional Hmong dishes are made in America and also includes new recipes that feature both Asian and American regional ingredients. It explores Hmong history and culture; offers special sections on cooking techniques, ingredient definitions and eating etiquette; and even includes culinary poems, descriptions of holiday meals and profiles of Hmong cooks.
To reflect the way that real Hmong cooking happens, the book is organized by main ingredient (not by types of dishes like appetizers and salads). The recipes, praise be, are detailed and clear-headed, from familiar dishes like egg rolls and the chopped meat salad that Hmongs call larb to more unusual specialties like Saly's Rice and Corn Pancakes and Tshuaj Cub Xyaw Qe (herbed eggs). With summer upon us and Hmong market stands overflowing, Cooking from the Heart is an inspiring resource for people who want to find out more about a little-known cuisine - and crave a deeper taste of their own regional flavor.
Stir-Fried Baby Bok Choy with Pork Belly
(Zaub Ntsuag Dawb Kib Xyaw Nqaij Npuas)
- 1/2 pound pork belly (or use loin roast with some fat on it)
- 1 bunch baby bok choy (about 10 small heads) or other leafy green vegetable
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 chicken bouillon cube (Asian-style or regular, which is MSG-free)
Cut the pork belly slab or loin roast into pieces about 1 inch long and 1/8 inch thick. Carefully wash the bok choy, pulling each leaf off the head. Cut each leaf in half from tip to stem. Drain on paper towels. Heat oil in wok over high heat. Add pork, salt and bouillon cube. Stir-fry about 10 minutes. Add bok choy and stir-fry 5 more minutes. The dish is done when meat is cooked, bok choy leaves are limp, stems are still a bit crispy and a glossy glaze covers all. Serve hot, with rice. Makes 6 servings. Recipe from Cooking from the Heart, by Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang.