The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
From The Asian Reporter, V19, #30 (August 4, 2009), page 13.
Cooking from the Heart, a joyful sharing of Hmong food and culture
Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America
By Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang
University of Minnesota Press, 2009
Hardcover, 276 pages, $29.95
By Julie Stegeman
People from two very different cultures can learn a lot about one another by cooking together and sharing their native food." So begins Cooking from the Heart, a cookbook presenting the culinary traditions of the Hmong people as well as more than 100 authentic Hmong recipes.
The book is the collaboration of two friends, Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang, who met in 1980 when Sheng and her family immigrated to America from Laos and became the Scripters’ neighbors. Sheng was in fifth grade at the time and was a student at the school where Sami worked. The two families became close and shared their food and culture with one another.
Realizing there was no comprehensive, mainstream account of Hmong cooking, the two women decided to write a cookbook to address the need while bringing recipes to new generations of Hmong, teaching people about the Hmong culture, and celebrating the rich tradition as it exists in America.
Hmong people learn to cook by watching others and experimentation, and Sami described one of the greatest challenges in creating the cookbook as documenting the recipes. "At first we thought that we would ask Hmong cooks to contribute recipes in writing, but Hmong cooks don’t use written recipes for their cooking, especially the more traditional dishes," she said. "For me, it was necessary to cook with people in their kitchens, taking lots of notes and estimating the measurements. Then I would try them out in my own kitchen."
Much like the recipes found inside its 276 pages, Cooking from the Heart is fresh, interesting, and out of the ordinary. From the stunning full-color photographs of the finished creations found in the center of the book, to the detailed accounts of the culture of the Hmong people and the prominent role food plays, to the black-and-white photographs and poems interspersed throughout the book documenting the lives of Hmong men, women, and children, the book is a great read as well as an innovative cookbook.
The recipes are grouped by the main ingredient, with titles listed in both English and Hmong. They range from familiar-sounding names, such as "Old-Fashioned Chicken Soup" and "Steamed Vegetables" to the decidedly more exotic "Pig Brain Pâté" and "Sticky Rice with Salty Pork and Mung Beans Wrapped in Banana Leaves."
The cookbook states that "all of the recipes in this book originated in Hmong kitchens and have not been modified to conform to non-Hmong palates." Never having tried Hmong food before, I was unsure what to expect from the flavors. I decided to tackle larb — often called "the national dish of Laos"— and described in the book as a meat salad "made of finely chopped raw or cooked meat or fish, combined with mint and other herbs."
The book has recipes for five types of larb — fish, beef, pork, chicken, and steak tartare.
The long list of ingredients for the recipe was somewhat intimidating, but I found all of them at a local grocery store and didn’t have to make a special trip to locate them. Cooking instructions were easy to follow and mostly involved a lot of chopping. When the prep work was complete, the larb was a breeze to put together — cook the chicken, cool it, toss it with the other ingredients, and serve on lettuce. The resultant dish was healthy (no added oil), very flavorful, and fresh tasting from all the herbs. The flavor was unlike any other style of cooking I have tried and inspired me to want to take a stab at other recipes in the book.
"What attracted me to Hmong cooking is more than individual dishes," Sami said. ‘It is about the act of families cooking and sharing food together. It is about a kitchen full of the wonderful aroma of steaming jasmine rice. That is what we tried to write about." The two friends have succeeded in their efforts in writing a book that truly brings heart and the Hmong culture into the kitchen.
So as the book so aptly puts it: "Peb noj mov!" (Let’s eat!)
Laj Nqaij Qaib
Chicken Larb (Laotian Chicken and Herb Salad)
Makes eight servings
Hmoov Nplej Kib (Toasted Sticky Rice Flour)
Makes 7/8 cup flour
Put 1 cup of uncooked sticky rice in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Stir constantly until the rice is uniformly browned (about 10 to 15 minutes). If the rice smokes as it is toasted, turn the heat down a little. Remove from the heat and let the rice cool. Grind the browned rice in a clean coffee grinder, or do it by hand using a mortar and pestle. Use the coffee grinder for only a few seconds; do not let the flour become too fine. The finished product should be a slightly grainy powder. Rice flour can be stored in an airtight container for several months.
On a large, clean chopping board, chop the chicken with a heavy knife or cleaver. As you chop the chicken, fold it over on itself. Continue to fold and chop until the meat is very finely chopped. Put the meat in a large bowl and squeeze the lime juice over it. Add the rice wine. Cook the chicken mixture in a nonstick skillet (don’t use any oil) over medium-high heat, tossing and stirring constantly just until the meat turns white. Return the mixture with any accumulated juice to the bowl and allow it to cool to room temperature. While the chicken cools, prepare the fresh herbs. Add the ginger (or galangal), lemongrass, lemon peel, chili peppers (or crushed chili flakes), garlic, fish sauce, salt, white pepper, and rice flour to the cooled mixture. Break apart the chicken bouillon cube and sprinkle it on top. Toss the ingredients together until they are well mixed. Then add the mint, cilantro, green onions, and Thai basil. Gently toss everything together. Break lettuce leaves away from the head, and wash and dry them.
Scoop 1/4 cup of larb onto each lettuce leaf and arrange the leaves on a large platter. Garnish with mint and cilantro sprigs and wedges of lime. Diners pick up a lettuce leaf and roll it up to eat. Serve larb with cool sticky rice.