In the Hmong language, much like Eskimos have many words for snowflakes, there are a variety of ways to say: “Come and Eat,” each one with an increasingly insistent tone to the appeal.
Yia Vang, Minnesota’s most important Hmong chef, quickly gaining national prominence, tells it this way: “When you’re telling someone to come and eat, what you’re really saying is, “Come, be a part of our family.”
He’s among more than 60,000 Hmong living in Minnesota, many arriving as refugees, as Vang and his family did. Minnesota is home to the largest urban Hmong population in the world, and yet few of us think of Hmong food when we think of going out for “Asian.”
Thanks to the efforts of Vang and his peers, Minneapolis is slowly but surely becoming a hub of a nuanced Southeast Asian cooking, cooking that doesn’t wait for a Eurocentric voice to come around and label it “this” or “that.”
About half of Minnesota’s Asian population is Southeast Asian, with about 27 percent of our overall Southeast Asian population being Hmong. Minnesota also experienced a large influx of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970’s after the Vietnam war. With 26,000 Vietnamese calling our state home, most Minnesotans consider pho—noodle soup in long simmered bone broth—and banh mi sandwiches our birthright. Who has the best of either are the subject of long-standing debate.
The past few years have marked a specifically galvanizing time for Southeast Asian dining in Minneapolis, where chefs are stepping out from behind the safety of Kung Pao chicken and Pad Thai, and are embracing their true homeland identities.