Chow Her spooned a pork mixture onto a piece of dough and twisted the edges together.
Her daughters, Susan and Lou Her, hovered over their mother as the dough started to resemble a ball. “Good job, Mom,” said Susan.
The Hers were among a dozen Hmong-American women who learned to make bánh bao (steamed buns) and sweet-potato-and-corn dumplings at a Falcon Heights commercial kitchen recently.
The class, part of the Hmong Food Tradition workshops at the Good Acre, brings adult children and their older relatives together to re-create Hmong delicacies and deepen understanding of shared traditions. The classes proved so popular that all four of them were nearly sold out.
This class was taught entirely in Hmong, and attendees were required to bring an elder. Most of them brought their mothers.
Yia Vang, who led the class, brought his mom. “Date-night cooking classes are fun, but for me this brings a bigger joy because there is a purpose in doing this,” said chef Vang. “We are here to build relationships.”
The workshop series, which began in July, was born out of a friendship between Vang, a local chef who creates Hmong dishes with a Midwestern canvas for his pop-up restaurant Union Kitchen, and Pajau Vangay, a University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate, who is researching intestinal health in local Hmong communities.
“He is so passionate,” said Vangay, who is researching the gut microbiome and looking for clues to the rise of chronic diseases in the local Hmong community.
The two collaborated on a project, funded by a $5,000 grant, that would incorporate both their interests. Before the cooking begins, Vangay talks about the research, which shows that those who lived in Laos and Thailand first became less healthy when they emigrated to the United States.
“This workshop encourages those conversations about healthy eating,” Vangay said.
During the class, a colorful array of fragrant herbs, quail eggs, Chinese sausage and ground meat awaited on a metal kitchen table. Vang taught the students how to make the dumplings, and then his mother, Pang Vang, stepped in to share the secrets of her specialty, bánh bao.
She emigrated with her family from Laos to St. Paul in 1988, just before her son began kindergarten.
“For me, cooking is how I connect with my mother,” Vang said. “It was very beautiful for me to see everyone bonding over food.”
The 20 women moved in close as Pang Vang talked about how to make the dough for her steamed buns. The key: cake flour.
Despite Yia Vang’s repeated assurances that any brand of cake flour would do, several women still wanted to know exactly where Pang Vang’s flour was purchased.
“It doesn’t matter, the brand,” he insisted. But the students wanted to see the bag.
There was a reason for that. “Especially with Hmong cooking, there’s not a lot of recipes, and so much of it is word of mouth,” Vangay said. “People will go to great lengths to actually make sure they get the same ingredients.”
For several students, this class offered an opportunity to bond with the women in their lives. In many busy Hmong families, what used to be a daily tradition has now dwindled to holiday get-togethers.
“It’s encouraging to see the traditional mom and siblings in the kitchen together bonding,” said Lou Her.
The women talked about what dish they crave the most. Many of them talked about how these traditional dishes are vital to their culture.
“My earliest memory is food and family gatherings,” said Shoua Vang, who attended the class with her mother, Mee Vue. “We never have a family gathering without a bunch of food.”
On a night that focused primarily around food and family, distant friends reconnected. Chow Her and Pang Vang recognized each other after years apart. They had both lived in the same village in Laos.