Mai Ly navigated the Hmong farmers market like a pinball, zigzagging between stands in search of the greenest, shiniest vegetables. We were at the busy market on a Sunday morning, in the parking lot of Sun Foods on University Avenue in St. Paul. Fueled by a cook's blend of pickiness and hope, Mai Ly (pronounced My Lee) had faith that she'd find a better batch of eggplant right around the corner.
"That's amaranth. Garlic chives. Let's get these long beans," she said. Mai picked up a bunch and tipped them toward the vendor. He took her dollar and dropped them in a bag. "We'll use them in the papaya salad. And here," she said, pointing to a scraggy bundle of seeded-out cilantro, "this is fresh coriander. We need to make pepper sauce, too."
Her menu for our afternoon cooking session, full of dishes she felt would demonstrate the range of Hmong cooking -- papaya salad, chicken soup with traditional herbs, larb, sticky rice, squash vine soup -- was already huge, and here she was adding to it.
Finally we found a stand selling the Hmong "soup herbs" we needed for the chicken soup. They were gathered into a thick, motley bunch -- some delicate like basil, some saw-toothed, some stiff like field grass. "When I first came to St. Paul you couldn't find these herbs," Mai said. "I had a booth at the downtown farmers market for 11 years, and it took awhile to find the seeds to grow things like sweet potato leaf, Thai eggplant and Chinese amaranth. Later, we all had seeds for the soup herbs. Someone must have smuggled them in from Laos."
I joked about the illegality of this bundle, but she grew serious. "We have to have these herbs."
Minneapolis-St. Paul is home to the largest metropolitan population of Hmong people in the United States, and while Hmong growers have a big presence at all of the farmers markets in St. Paul, their cuisine has remained oddly underground. I can only guess as to why: one, because they're a distinct cultural group without a home country (native mostly to Laos, and going way back, to China) and two, they don't have a tradition of writing down recipes.
"That's true," said Mai, as she picked through the sheaves of lemongrass. "But it's also because some good Hmong cooks guard their recipes like secrets."
On the other hand, Mai wants to help popularize iconic Hmong dishes with the best, most authentic recipes. This means no shortcuts and no substitutions -- and a lot of vegetable schlepping.
In the Hmong kitchen
When we arrived in her kitchen in Oakdale, we dropped the dozen or so shopping bags hanging from our arms. She immediately started filling a sink with water for washing vegetables. Her counters lined the perimeter, all clear but for a plastic vat of green vines that sat fermenting in one corner. An overstuffed shelf covered the other wall with a colorful mosaic: canisters of sticky rice and jasmine rice, jars of Asian condiments, packages of spaghetti and all kinds of noodles, a bag of shiny limes.
She began shredding green papaya into long strips for the salad. After pulling out a steep-sided clay mortar, Mai dug a spoon into a gray pot and came up with two tiny periwinkle crab legs, freakishly adjoined and covered with some sort of a grayish sauce. They didn't look raw, but they didn't look exactly cooked either.
"It's fermented crab," she said, reading the question on my face. As she laughed, her eyes shone and gathered into star shapes. "You scared?"
"No!" I said. Well, maybe just a little. But I told her to make it however she would make it for herself. Into her mortar fell the mini crab legs, along with a small handful of potent Thai chiles, a few shots from a large bottle of fish sauce and a lumpy spoonful of tamarind purée.
"OK," she said. "I like it really spicy, though!"
Traditional Hmong food, she noted, isn't necessarily spicy. Papaya salad, she said, is more Lao. "The traditional Hmong people, the people who lived up on the mountain, eat the simple soups, boiled squash vines, greens or chicken, and in the fall, game stews -- they're rich and very good, but not always spicy. The younger people who moved down into the lowlands and the cities, they learned to eat more Thai and Lao foods -- papaya salad, larb, spicy sausages."
The papaya salad struck a sure-footed balance between sweetness and acidity before delivering a sweeping, two-footed kick of chile. It was a tangier, less-sweet papaya salad than the Thai version I know, with an earthy, almost sneaky fishiness and a sauce painted a shiny mahogany from the tamarind.
She opened the refrigerator and pulled out a stiff chicken wrapped in plastic. "This is a freshly killed chicken, the only kind for the chicken soup," she said. Lanky, with long gray toes, this was no supermarket chicken. Mai's cleaver swung in a blur; she threw 12 bumpy, equal pieces into the pot. Like most Asians, the Hmong's avoidance of commercially processed chicken often leads them to a live poultry market where they can butcher their own. To people accustomed to looking their chicken in the eye, a pack of skinless, boneless breasts seems about as fresh as a 10-day-old fish strapped to a foam tray.
When the soup was done, she arranged three knobs of chicken in the bowl and ladled the clear lemongrass-scented broth over it. The herbs were gently aromatic and soft enough to melt between tongue and palate. The chicken was tougher than conventional chicken but yielded great flavor with each chew.
"After a woman gives birth, this is the only dish she eats for two months," Mai said. I was a little surprised: "That's it? Even for breakfast?" "Yes," she said. "Three times a day. This soup repairs her bones and gives her strength."
The steam from the soup was enveloping, fragrant and delicious, but something in Mai's voice when she talked about it made me feel its pleasures weren't only gastronomic. Was this soup a medicine or a delicacy?
The answer is a little of both, of course. Real Hmong cooking, like other beautifully old-fashioned cuisines, sticks fast to its roots, to its traditional ingredients, and to a time when feeding the body and the soul were one and the same.
Amy Thielen is a chef and writer who divides her time between Two Inlets, Minn., and New York City.
Poll: Which 2013 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest entry do you most want to try?