On the last day of AAPI Heritage Month, Midwest Food Connection is reviewing what we’ve learned through researching Hmong culture and traditions. Thanks to a grant appropriated to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, Midwest Food Connection educators have had the opportunity to research Hmong food traditions to continue developing our food education curriculum for Minnesota students. In celebration of AAPI Heritage Month, our food educators reflected on what they have learned so far.

Hmong Food History

The Hmong had rich and diverse food traditions when they lived in Laos. They were active farmers of grains and vegetables, raised livestock, and hunted and foraged in the forest. Upon their arrival in Minnesota, many adjustments were necessary. However, the Hmong were used to being the less dominant culture, both in Laos and in China. As a result, they were able to embrace many American foods, find traditional items in Asian grocery stores, and grow crops to round out their needs.

Midwest Food Connection is exploring how the Hmong made these adjustments. We have found interesting descriptions of their early years in our state. For example, recipe books were created in English to capture traditions. In addition, ethnologists studied the cultural patterns of the new arrivals to Minnesota.

Papaya Salad

Educators are also studying Hmong food traditions. Papaya salad is a favorite Hmong dish. This dish originated in Laos but became popular in Thailand. There are many variations in how papaya salad is prepared; however, each dish starts with grated green papaya and ground garlic, chili peppers, and seasonings. Hmong women use a mortar and pestle for grinding the ingredients, to bring out the natural oils and flavor of this dish. These cooking techniques have been passed down from mother to daughter for generations. Missy, a Midwest Food Connection educator, attended the Hmong New Year celebration in 2022. While she was there, a Hmong cook demonstrated how ground seasonings were mixed with shredded papaya, carrots, tomatoes, and fish sauce to make the salad. Added ingredients included crushed peanuts and a squeeze of lime juice.

Papaya salad can be spicy, sweet, or sour, depending on a cook’s preference. The variety of tastes associated with this dish was expressed by a Hmong mother teaching her daughter how to prepare this dish: “As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, good papaya is in the hands of a gifted cook.” 

Continuing Our Learning

Our next step is to find partners in the Hmong community—elders, foodies, chefs— to learn how traditions have changed in the past 40 years. We look forward to the experiential aspect of this learning! Our research is made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.