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Hmong chef Yia Vang brings a taste of home to Minnesota's Twin Cities


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: St Paul, Minnesota is home to the nation's largest population of Hmong, and indigenous nomadic people from Southeast Asia. Thousands of Hmong refugees ended up in the upper Midwest after the Vietnam War. They've called the area home for nearly 50 years, but their cooking hadn't quite found a home their special correspondent Megan Thompson tells us about a chef who seems to be changing that.

Yia Vang, Hmong Chef: So this is the rice and here's our big rice steamer, that is hot. To be completely honest, I never wanted to do this. I tried my hardest to get out of it.

Megan Thompson: Why?

Yia Vang: In our culture in the old school way of looking at it is like to be a cook meant, like you would just be, you know, sloshing it in the back. You're dirty all the time.

Megan Thompson: Yia Vang may have failed to avoid cooking for a living, but he's doing much more than getting dirty in the kitchen.

Yia Vang: In the Hmong way of saying is (inaudible) come and eat.

Megan Thompson: The Minneapolis chef is at the forefront of introducing the Twin Cities and the nation to the food of the Hmong and ethnic group from Southeast Asia.

Yia Vang: Obviously Hmong food consists of four elements a meat, a rice, a vegetable and a hot sauce.

Megan Thompson: Vang's Union Hmong Kitchen started in 2016 as a pop up then a food trailer outside a local cidery. Now it's a popular counter inside a trendy food hall. Vang also launches new menu concepts every few months at Hilltribe. His kitchen and event space. He's been a James Beard Award finalist or semifinalists for the last two years.

Yia Vang: We have our pork belly. We have our Hmong sausage of Kelsang, which is our noodles and then we have our purple sticky rice here because if everything is too flavorful, it's too big for you. The purple sticky rice helps balance everything out.

Joe Doerrer: I've actually never had Hmong food and this is my first time and it's phenomenal.

Megan Thompson: In the cities with the largest Hmong population in the nation, Vang is hailed as the first to bring his native food to the masses. In April, he opened a stand at the Twins baseball stadium and last summer fans lined up for his booth at Minnesota's legendary state fair the first time Hmong food had been served at either place.

Lee Pao Xiong is the director of the Center for Hmong studies at Concordia University in St. Paul.

Lee Pao Xiong, Director, Center for Hmong Studies, Concordia University St. Paul: I think that what's unique about year is the ability to communicate and to correct to younger generations, right. I mean, they they've seen the Hmong people, but they've never been invited to the kitchen.

Yia Vang: Our food has always been about people, our cultural DNA, it's intricately woven into the foods that we eat. It tells our story.

Megan Thompson: That story begins around 5,000 years ago in China where Hmong originated. They're thought to be among the first in the world to cultivate rice and are known for their colorful dress and embroidery.

Conflict eventually pushed them on south into the mountains of Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. It was in Laos during the Vietnam War that the CIA recruited the Hmong for covert missions.

Lee Pao Xiong: Our task was to rescue American pilots who were shut down to also engage the North Vietnamese in combats, preventing them from going down to southern part of Laos and then going across to fight against the Americans in South Vietnam.

Yia Vang: They painted his whole mural around this area.

Megan Thompson: The conflict is so central to the Hmong story, that an expensive mural of Long Tieng a secret CIA base in Laos covers a wall of the Hmong village market in St. Paul.

Yia Vang: And actually Long Tieng is a place where a father at a young age him and his brothers they joined up with SGU, the Special Guerilla Unit, and their mission were Long Tieng of this area.

Megan Thompson: The conflict killed and estimated 30 to 40,000 Hmong soldiers, about a quarter of all Hmong men and boys in Laos. Tens of thousands of civilians also died during the war and after the American forces withdrew.

Lee Pao Xiong: So after the United States pulled out in 1975, guess what the Vietnamese came after us. So we fly to Thailand.

Megan Thompson: Yia Vang's father led a group through the jungle and across the Mekong River to safety in Thailand. In 1984, Vang was born there inside a refugee camp. Many Hmong emigrated to Minnesota after the war, thanks to an active group of church based aid organizations. Today the state is home to close to 100,000 Hmong. Vang's family ended up next door and Wisconsin where food was a way to maintain the Hmong culture.

Yia Vang: Learning how to cook in a Hmong house hold is not an option. It's not like hey, do I want to like cook? No, it's like no, you're going to cook.

Pang Her Vang, Yia's Mother (through translator): We want all our children to learn to work with us. Washing dishes, prepping vegetables, chopping meat together, making food together.

Nnhia Lor Vang, Yia's Father (through translator): I taught you that when grilling you need to season the meat very well and don't allow it to burn.

Megan Thompson: But Vang says as a child, he wasn't necessarily proud of his heritage.

Yia Vang: I was always a shame that my parents couldn't come to school for like, you know, Career Day. Because my parents couldn't speak English and I was a kid I was always very embarrassed.

Megan Thompson: They worked in restaurants to help pay the bills after college and launched his Hmong food trailer but wasn't sure of its future. Then in 2017, his father suffered a head injury.

Yia Vang: Like my dad's, he's a warrior, right? He fought a war. He survived the odds he got us to this country, if he dies on that bed. Like his whole legacy goes with him. And so it changed for me. It was not about this telling the story of our people. It was the solidification of the legacy of mom and dad.

Megan Thompson: And so today, Vang uses his popular eateries to tell his parents story.

Yia Vang: Hmong sausage is something that my dad has taught us growing up. It's very aromatic. So it's lemongrass, ginger, garlic, shallots, fish sauce, Thai chilies. We won an award with this recipe. And I told my father about it. And he was just like, oh, really, that's simple thing. Like people like that.

Megan Thompson: And the hot sauce. It's his mom's famous recipe.

Yia Vang: We have Mama Vang hot sauce. It looks like that dark crimson paste.

Megan Thompson: Vang's parents even supplies some of his ingredients grown on their small farm north of St. Paul.

Gustavo Romero: Every time that I faced his food, there's always something different.

Kate Lynne Synder: The spicy red sauce that that thick paste. You can just dip it on anything. I could picture having an ice cream and that being good.

Yia Vang: I'm like America.

Megan Thompson: But it's not the food that's brought back success.

Yia Vang: Nice to meet you for sure.

Megan Thompson: It's also his sense of humor and big personality. Vang has a podcast about Hmong culture.

Yia Vang: Manny, I love your tortillas.

Megan Thompson: And he hosts two TV shows.

Cloua Yang: He's kind of like a trailblazer, especially for the Hmong people. You know, we don't have a country to call our own. No one really understands our cuisine and he's been able to introduce it to the world.

Peggy Flanagan, Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota: Chef, you really embody how we should celebrate our community and things --

Megan Thompson: Vang's are in some high profile fans too, like Peggy Flanagan, Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, who stopped by our recent event celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Yia Vang: Lieutenant Governor. And this is my mom Pang.

Peggy Flanagan: So nice to me you.

Megan Thompson: Vang cooked all the food with his parents, of course.

Yia Vang: Those egg rolls or mom's famous egg rolls ever since we were little kids. We would do egg roll sales. It came to a point where the health department at our little Wisconsin town came out and they're like what's going on?

Megan Thompson: Vang's hoping to launch his first formal brick and mortar restaurant soon calling it Vinai after the run refugee camp where he was born and where his parents first met, embracing his heritage no longer ashamed.

Yia Vang: Fast forward 30 years, hoping that people would talk to me about my parents. 30 years later, I cannot not, not talk about them. So I say I've run so far try so hard to run from who I am that it becomes a circle to running to back to who you were meant to be.

Megan Thompson: For PBS News Weekend, I'm Megan Thompson in Minneapolis.

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