As food educators, we are constantly refreshing our curriculum to improve its cultural relevance to the communities we serve. Through grants from local foundations, we have been learning from and cultivating relationships with leaders in important cultural communities in Minnesota, including Hmong food leaders.
Food traditions are an important part of the conversation around the question, ‘What is hmong culture?’ In 2022, we received a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society* to learn about Hmong food traditions and food history. Throughout 2023, we spent a lot of time learning about Hmong history, food, and cultural traditions, with the goal of implementing this knowledge into our food education curriculum.
With the help of local Hmong influencers and leaders, we have gathered several key takeaways that we hope to uplift through our curriculum.
Hmong Culture in America
Hmong people started arriving from Thailand refugee camps in the late 1970s and have been coming to the U.S. ever since. The Twin Cities have the highest Hmong population in the country. As a result of this ongoing migration, we cannot determine a starting or ending point for Hmong food traditions in Minnesota. However, we know that Hmong communities and their food traditions have a strong influence on Minnesota cuisine.
Two factors further define Hmong food traditions. The many years Hmong people spent in Thailand, both in refugee camps and in the larger Thai culture, along with the expanding food economy that Hmong people have created in the United States are both influential in the expansion and practice of Hmong food traditions in Minnesota.
The Four Components of Hmong Dishes
Though Hmong restaurateurs and communities have been influenced by American culture, the four core components of Hmong dishes have a lasting power. Protein, freshly cooked or steamed vegetables, rice, and a hot sauce are pillars in every Hmong meal.
Rice is the bedrock of the meal, with fluffy rice generally preferred. Protein comes as fish, pork, chicken, or beef. The protein component is grilled, boiled, or put into sausage. While many vegetables are used, mustard greens are especially common, as eating them is a favorite tradition. Hot sauces vary from home to home, but Thai chili peppers are almost always the base in Hmong traditional foods. These four components allow Hmong communities to consistently create hearty and balanced meals, adding to the allure of Hmong food.
Minneapolis chef and owner of Union Hmong Kitchen, Yia Vang creates his menus with these components in mind. Customers are invited to choose between proteins like pork belly with hot pepper sauce and Hmong sausage with crunchy chili oil, inspired by one of his family’s Hmong food recipes. Paired with sticky rice and a choice of side like salad, rice noodles, or taro chips, food lovers can create a modernized and delicious meal, based on the foundation of Hmong traditions.
Farming as a Hmong Food Tradition
Hmong people of all generations continue to farm. There is a persistent desire to have fresh foods, like vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish. Hmong farmers raise chickens for meat, purchase and butcher pigs, and fish in the lakes, commonly sourcing food from the land and water around us.
Backyard gardens are common, many Hmong people have hobby farms, and some like Mhonpaj Lee have even started larger ventures, making a living from growing food.
Along with her mother May Lee, Mhonpaj Lee owns Mhonpaj’s Garden, the first Hmong-owned farm to be certified as an organic farm in Minnesota. In 1980, the family immigrated from Laos and started farming in the U.S. As an organic farm, Mhonpaj’s Garden is chemical-free and prioritizes a healthy relationship between farming and the planet.
Hmong Customs and Culture Across Generations
Each generation approaches Hmong food traditions in new ways. Since there are always new first-generation immigrants (the children of those who immigrated as adults), there is not a clear progression of Hmong food traditions from the 1970s to the present time.
However, it is clear that first-generation immigrants renew their bonds to Hmong culture as they grow up. There is a great deal of respect and enjoyment for traditional Hmong foods among young people in Hmong communities, even as they interpret and prepare Hmong dishes in modern ways.
Teaching Students About Diverse Food Traditions
We are eternally grateful to all of the Minnesota Hmong food leaders who invited us into their restaurants, gardens, and culture. Our thanks go out to the folks who helped us, including Mhonpaj Lee, Yia Vang, and Lee Pao Xiong.
While this summary is only a high-level overview of Hmong food traditions, there are many intricacies and practices in Hmong culture to be celebrated. We are now embarking on our second phase of this project, which involves continuing to expand our knowledge of Hmong food traditions and incorporating what we’ve learned in our lessons.
For food education to be comprehensive, it is essential that students not only explore new foods but appreciate culturally diverse food traditions from their own culture and others. We are grateful for the opportunity to do this work, immerse ourselves in other cultures, and expand our curriculum to make an even greater impact on Twin Cities students.
*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.
Midwest Food Connection teaches food education in classrooms across the Twin Cities and beyond. We help students build relationships with their food, and understand how their food choices connect to their environment and community. Through exploring new foods, healthy cooking, and gardening, kids get excited about learning how to nurture their bodies and the environment.