Here’s one of my great loves: Hmong papaya salad.
Here’s how I indulge my passion: I drive up to one of the two Hmong marketplaces, Hmongtown or Hmong Village, on the east side of St. Paul, Minn., and ask a vendor from a modest food stand — typically a strong, short woman with ropy muscles and powerful hands — to make it.
Here’s what happens: She grabs a huge papaya, which is green, unripe and starchy-crisp like a daikon radish, and starts shredding it with a razor-sharp grater into a vegetable spaghetti. Then she throws it into a stainless-steel bowl and adds something seasonal and fresh, like quartered bitter-ball eggplant (Ping-Pong-ball-size globes that are bright green with a radish-flavored bite) or segments of long bean (like string beans, but four times the length, wrinkled with a promise of a mushroom-like meatiness). Then come the tomatoes, which are big and cut small or already small and slightly smooshed so the juices run out.
The vendor then turns her attention to a big mortar and pestle, into which she throws some combination (depending on her own particular recipe) of fresh lime juice, tangy tamarind paste, fish sauce or crab sauce or shrimp paste, fresh chili peppers, garlic, and, if the spirit hits, fresh cilantro.
She combines the two containers, and -— kapow! — you have a concoction that’s fresh and zingy and tangy, hot and cool and deep. It’s almost always a dish that scores, as they say in This Is Spinal Tap, an 11. Or, actually, it merits a 13. It’s fantastic with a piece of plain barbecued pork and some iron-rich traditional Hmong red sticky rice or rice noodles, which are typically available at those same St. Paul Hmong markets.
Whenever I have to show Minnesota off to visiting food royalty, I make a beeline for this part of the Twin Cities. I get as much joy from these trips as I do from visiting the important Rembrandts at the local museum.
Because of the great goodwill and joy in my heart that this Hmong papaya salad has created, I’ve made a habit of reading all the Hmong literature I can get my hands on, including Kao Kalia Yang’s excellent The Late Homecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir (Coffee House Press, 2008), Jane Hamilton-Merritt’s Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942–1992 (Indiana University Press, 1999), and Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang’s Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). I’ve learned a lot on my literary journey.
The Hmong (rhymes with rung) were expelled from their ancestral homeland by the Chinese, and settled in the mountains of what is now Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They fought the North Vietnamese for the United States during the Vietnam War, and when Uncle Sam declared an end to the conflict, the victorious Communists unleashed their military machine on the remaining Hmong. Those who could escaped to refugee camps, and today Hmong have been resettled around the world, notably in France, California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. I can’t say I ever made a conscious decision to take up these strong people’s food and culture as a hobby, but somehow I did, and it has provided me untold happiness over the years.
When I describe varieties of Asian cuisine to fellow Westerners, I typically relate it to different branches of European cooking: Thai food, for instance, is like French food — best executed by a brigade kitchen staffed with apprentices and experts, deploying master sauces, and built to feed a clientele of urban elites. Hmong food is like Italian food — connected to a kitchen garden, fresh-ingredient-driven, primarily geared toward feeding a family.
Flash-sautéed greens with chili peppers made in the Hmong tradition is strikingly familiar to a Sicilian version of the same dish, except that the latter is accented with lemon and dry goat cheese, while the Hmong version is finished with lime and fish sauce.
There’s a sour eggplant Hmong dish called kua txob lws tuav, which any Italian would recognize as a kissing cousin of caponata. And one time I had a Hmong tomato stew that still haunts my dreams. It was rich and tangy, silky and as concentrated as dark chocolate — if chocolate were made of tomatoes. And I haven’t even told you about the fresh, handmade rice noodles.
The first time I ever even heard of the Hmong people, I was hanging out with a reporter who, while working on a story about Hmong refugees, had been invited to a celebration: “It’s the worst food you could ever try,” he told a gathering of fellow journalists over beer. “They bury it, or something — I don’t know. It has a whang to it.” By using the word “whang,” he invoked the great taboo of decay: These foreign people are eating decayed foods!
I was fresh out of college, and accepted the older writer’s dispatch as wisdom. Someone had gone to the edge of the map and seen monsters — or at least eaten their favorite foods. Now, as a full-fledged grown-up, I realize that we Americans have a long history of fearing other cultures’ food traditions, and then later co-opting them while conveniently forgetting our resistance. (Hot dogs, for instance, were so named because Americans had suspicions about what German immigrants were actually putting inside those tasty sausage casings.)
As an adult, I also realize that the reporter who was telling us ghost stories probably didn’t even realize what he was saying. In retrospect, I could lazily label him some sort of racist, but I think it would be more accurate to say that I was merely getting the unedited impression of a man raised on an unseasoned, pre-war, Midwestern diet of meat and potatoes. It was, no doubt, his first encounter with fish sauce.
Fish sauce is, of course, the liquid of fermented fish. Now for Scandinavians, Jews, Italians, Wisconsinites and other folk who are used to pickled fish, like herring, fish sauce isn’t much of a culinary leap. But to others . . . well, it is.
No matter. We all come from our own culinary backgrounds, and we have our own divergent experiences with what we deem to be exotic flavors. But the way I see it, one thing we get during our time here on this Earth is the chance to be the best eaters we can be. And, occasionally, we get the chance to grow and change.
Sometimes this growth and change leads to a really delightful experience. Sometimes it doesn’t. (I remember one Hmong cold-water spinach concoction I once tried that reminded me of a line I heard on The Simpsons about the classic Spanish soup gazpacho: “It’s tomato soup, served ice cold!”)
Jonathan Swift famously said, “He was a bold man that first eat an oyster.” But in fact, I bet it was a brave man, or woman, or starving child, who ate the first anything — blueberries, chanterelle mushrooms or another culture’s food.
Let’s face it: There are a lot of good reasons to resist putting things-not-generally-recognized-as-food into your mouth. On the other hand, there are a lot of good reasons to go ahead and give them a try — not the least of which is the reason I gleaned from my first papaya salad: Because you might discover a great new love that will be at your side for decades to come.