The first time I ever saw a Hmong person was at the farmers market around the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, many years ago. I was a young line cook at the time, and I gawked at the garishly bright clothes they put their children in. They did not look like any Vietnamese I’d ever met, and someone — I forget who — immediately let me know that the Hmong are most definitely not Vietnamese; they said saying so is like saying the Irish are the same as the Scots. Being a Scot, I understood that at a cellular level.
Then I learned that these people, the Hmong (pronounced “mung” or “mong,” sorta like the bean), had fought for us during the Vietnam War, that they were rural hill people, farmers, who did not much like the Communists. I studied military history as an undergraduate, so I knew all about the “Secret War” we fought in Laos and Cambodia, and even Thailand. I felt an odd rush of pride when I realized that my country had — for once — not dicked over a group willing to fight for us, that once we lost in Vietnam we let the Hmong come here as refugees; we’re not always so magnanimous.
Years went by after those first encounters at local farmers markets. When I began hunting in Minnesota, however, I learned something else: That the Hmong are also good hunters and anglers. Very few immigrant groups hunt, and I for one think it is a good thing to have an ethnically diverse hunting population out there.
Then, earlier this year, I heard that the first-ever Hmong cookbook written in English had been released: Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America. I knew — just knew — there had to be wild game recipes in that book, so I called the publisher and asked. “You bet!” she said (the book is published by the University of Minnesota, so I reckon they say, “you bet” a lot there.) I asked for a review copy, and they sent me one.
Yes, there are wild game recipes in the book, but I will come to them in later posts. What really struck me was a) that one of the co-authors, Sheng Yang, lives right here in Elk Grove, and that b) there was a Hmong sausage recipe in the book. Asian sausage?
I’ve eaten Chinese sausages and hate their gummy texture; doubtless I’ve never found a good one. I’ve also eaten the Vietnamese sausages you find in a good bowl of pho: Very finely grained meat, almost pate-like, that takes some getting used to. But this sausage was right up my alley. It was country-style, coarse-grained yet super flavorful and served grilled. It is the epitome of what makes Hmong cooking different from Vietnamese. Think rustic Italian vs. refined French. I had to make this sausage.
The first thing I noticed in the recipe was a full cup of minced ginger for a three-pound batch of sausages. No way. Not going there. Ginger is super-fibrous and that much in that little meat would make it nothing more than a ginger link. It was then that I decided to make this recipe my own. Normally I try to make things the way the recipe says at least once, but I make an awful lot of sausages so I can just read a sausage recipe and see where things might not fit what I want to do. So I decided to grate the ginger and cut it down to 1/2 cup, for a five-pound batch.
I then added fresh cilantro and Thai basil — also not in Sheng’s recipe — because I wanted them in there. Sheng even says that no two Hmong cooks make this sausage the same, and not being a Hmong cook, I felt at ease taking the liberties I did.
In went black pepper, Thai chiles and the juice of three limes. Oh yeah, and wild boar meat. Why wild boar? First, because Sheng’s husband Leo hunts wild pigs, so I bet they’ve eaten this sausage that way, and second, Southeast Asian pork is far redder and fuller-flavored than “the other white meat” you find at Costco and such. Wild boar just fits the flavor profile better.
Click here for the full Hmong sausage recipe.
I was surprised how light-colored the mix was. Maybe it was the pound-plus of pure yummy pork fat I’d tossed in. I get my domestic pork fat from John Bledsoe, an excellent hog farmer from nearby Yolo County.
Pushing the sausage into links, I started to wonder what to serve these sausages with. Sheng and her co-author Sami Scripter don’t say. Maybe a Hmong bahn mi sandwich? In pho? Maybe a stir-fry?
I’d gone to the Citrus Heights farmers market that morning to buy the herbs and chiles from a Hmong vendor; I dunno why I didn’t ask her what she ate with these sausages. Brain fart, I guess. I did buy water spinach from her, however, and I decided to just saute it simply with garlic and chiles — a method Sheng and Sami write about in their book — and serve that, some rice and the sausages grilled simply.
The result? I love the flavor, but need to work on the texture, which was a little crumbly. I think I failed to get as tight a bind on the meat as I should have, either because of the acid in the limes or because I did not mix it enough, or the temperature was too high. No matter, they taste good.
It is an odd thing biting into a sausage that tastes like Asia. Sausages are such a Western thing to me that the flavors of ginger, chiles, cilantro, Thai basil and the like are jarring when stuffed inside a link. A country-style sausage is never a light meal, but the Hmong seasonings did their best to cut all that fat; it is the kind of push-pull in flavor and texture that make Southeast Asian cooking so good.
The way I see it, you ought to buy Cooking from the Heart if you live anywhere the Hmong do: This is how they use all those funny greens, the bitter melons and such. It is a worthwhile book just for that.
But better still, if you are a hunter or an angler, this book offers a look into the one exotic cuisine here in America that specifically targets wild game and fish. No need to shoehorn game into a recipe, the Hmong cook with it all the time and know the differences between beef and venison, pheasant and chicken. Hunters and anglers who cook from this book will gain an appreciation both for a new cuisine — and, hopefully, for a new set of hunters who they may only have known through news clippings, or through fleeting glimpses in the woods or fields. And that’s a good thing.
MORE ON HMONG COOKING
- A review of “Cooking from the Heart,” from Good Stuff NW
- Hmong Beef Stir-Fry, from Blue Kitchen
- Hmong Steamed Fish, from The Perfect Pantry