Cooking from the heart
A Sacramento woman and her lifelong friend release the first ever Hmong cookbook
Sheng Yang’s Elk Grove home is a spacious, comfortable suburban abode just off Calvine Road. Hundreds of photos decorate the high-ceilinged foyer: pictures of a large extended family, including one with hunting rifles, one in traditional Hmong clothing and one in very all-American basketball uniforms.
It’s Saturday morning and Sheng, a petite and pretty 39-year-old Hmong woman with glasses and a dainty spray of freckles across her nose, is in the kitchen holding a typewritten shopping list, which she’s prepared for the day. She hands a copy to her good friend Sami Scripter, an older Caucasian woman with smiling eyes and wavy brown hair held back in a sensible headband. The two women confer on a few details, communicating in a kind of mental shorthand and often completing each other’s sentences.
“Are we going to stuff the—” Sami begins.
“Yes,” Sheng finishes.
They get into Sheng’s late-model sedan and head to a deep south-area Hmong grocer, B&S Oriental Market, where they immediately beeline for the produce section’s dizzying array of greenery, which the Hmong employ for both culinary and medicinal uses. Sheng tears off leaves, smells and tastes; Sami calls out their names. A pointy green leaf with a maroon “V” shape on it is bitter, minty and hot—“Vietnamese coriander.” One heart-shaped leaf has a surprising fish aroma and a tart, distinctly piscine flavor. “Fish mint,” Sami says.
Sheng carefully picks out a long bundle of feathery, flowered cilantro, which looks very different from the green stuff you see chopped in tacos. Sami explains that the Hmong identify 10 different kinds of cilantro.
The two women are an efficient team. Sheng is businesslike and quick; Sami a dedicated scholar of Hmong culture. Together they pile ingredients into the cart—fresh bamboo, coconut milk, fish sauce—and Sheng chats in Hmong with the owner as they wait for the butcher to bring out three chickens, heads, feet and all.
Sami and Sheng have an unusual friendship, formed many years ago and strengthened by a mutual love of Hmong culture. It’s a unique closeness, and not just because they’re so passionate about cooking together: The friends have written and just released the first ever Hmong cookbook.
Like many Hmong-Americans of her generation, Sheng Yang’s life was irrevocably shaped by America’s fight against the Communist forces in Southeast Asia during the ’60s and ’70s. Her father, Gnia Kao Yang, battled alongside U.S. forces for six years and, like other Hmong men, was forced to flee his home country, Laos, when the United States pulled out. With the assistance of the Catholic Church, he fled with his wife, Mai Her, and his young daughter, Sheng, first to a refugee camp in Thailand and then to three U.S. cities, finally settling in Portland, Ore., in 1979.
This was when Sami Scripter entered Sheng’s life.
Sami was the coordinator for a Talented and Gifted program at her children’s school, and then 11-year-old Sheng took English as a Second Language classes in the same room. Sami says she and Sheng “just clicked,” and this was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted almost three decades.
The two families began a fruitful cultural exchange. Sheng’s mother grew Hmong vegetables and herbs in Sami’s backyard. Sami’s daughter was close in age to Sheng, and the Scripters constructed bunk beds so that Sheng could move in with them to hasten her progress in reading and writing in English. In return, Sheng often prepared dinner and taught Sami how to cook Hmong dishes.
Sheng married young and eventually moved to the Sacramento area with her extended family. And while Sheng and Sami haven’t lived in the same city for years, the two have kept in touch, gathering every so often to cook.
About three years ago, Sami and Sheng got serious about the idea of writing a cookbook together. Save a couple of recipe collections that are really no more than pamphlets, until now, there has never been an English-language Hmong cookbook.
Their foremost motivation was to preserve Hmong culture for the next generation of young, assimilated Hmong youth. They started a Web site to catalog Hmong recipes, and soon after, University of Minnesota Press recognized the singularity of their effort and approached the couple.
Thus began a flurry of correspondence cooking between Sami and Sheng, and multiple flights from Portland to Sacramento by Sami, to fine-tune hundreds of recipes.
“The Hmong people are intuitive cooks; our recipe book is counter to what they do,” Sami admits, though their cookbook, Cooking From the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America, has multiple glossaries of ingredients and herbs, which are invaluable to the study of Hmong cuisine. The book also is packed with recipes, which vary from the everyday and practical (watercress salad dressed with pork) to the more fanciful (beer-marinated squirrel). Due to the historical geographic distribution of the Hmong people, Hmong food is an exciting mélange of Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian and Chinese flavors.
Cooking From the Heart is noteworthy not just because it is the most comprehensive repository of these traditional Hmong recipes, it’s also a history, complete with personal stories and poetry. There is a melancholy to the Hmong immigrant experience in America born of a longing for a home that no longer exists, and these passages express this beautifully.
Sheng’s 9-year-old daughter, Francis, greets her and Sami upon their return from grocery shopping. The other children hustle to unload the many grocery bags. Sheng’s husband, Leo, practices guitar in a music room, which also contains a drum set and enough giant amps to make any teenage boy smile.
Everyone springs into action to prepare the meal. Sheng’s wisecracking sister, Blia, arrives with her newborn daughter. Another sister, Little Sami, who is Sami’s namesake, soon follows. The three sisters have an easy, teasing way with each other. Blia leafs through the cookbook, looking at the pictures and musing as to which kids were cuter when the pictures were taken.
“Ever wonder why Hmong outfits make you looks so fat?” she asks.
“They’re supposed to. It means your family eats good,” Little Sami quips.
The women enlist Leo, who’s a nurse and radiates a laid-back, good-natured humor, to help chop fish for the larb. He gets the handmade Hmong knives, noting that the typical Hmong household doesn’t own this many blades.
“But me and Sheng are not normal people,” he adds.
Indeed, Sheng is known in her Elk Grove neighborhood as the “Hmong Martha Stewart,” and she and Leo are renowned hosts. Sheng says that the Hmong way is to drop by without notice, so she’s always prepared to cook for guests.
The sisters and a daughter-in-law mince the plethora of fresh greenery: box elder, duck tongue herb, green onion, lemongrass. Sami cores bitter melon, which will later be stuffed with ground pork and herbs. Sheng and Leo vigorously hack away at the chicken and the fish, respectively. Thwack! Knives bang against the cutting boards, the sound blasting sharply across the kitchen, bits of fish and chicken sent flying.
A discussion of From the Heart’s squirrel recipe turns into a debate over when is the best time to hunt squirrel. Leo says September, because before that the squirrels “have too many hormones and stink.” Sami says that many years ago Sheng’s mother, Mai, was gardening in Sami’s backyard, Little Sami tied onto her back. Sami saw a quick movement out of the corner of her eye; that night, they ate the squirrel that Mai caught.
“Stuffed, with its little paws curled up,” Sami notes.
Everyone snacks on bowls of warm nab vam, or a rich and luscious tapioca dessert cooked in sweet coconut milk, studded with chunks of taro and jackfruit, which Sheng has prepared to tide them over until dinner.
Soon, fresh-chopped herbs overtake the countertops and bubbling and fragrant pots blaze over every burner. The doorbell rings and Francis runs to answer, the three dogs in the backyard barking with each new arrival. Leo is back in his music room beating on the drums and Sheng is rechopping his fish.
“He did a poor job,” she clucks. It’s cheerful chaos.
The finishing touches are put on the dishes. Sheng assembles the all-important papaya salad inside a large mortar. This Hmong version of papaya salad is stronger than what one commonly encounters at Thai restaurants. It may contain cherry tomatoes, long bean or Thai eggplant, and its flavors are boosted with lots of fish sauce, lime juice, crab and shrimp paste, hot chili condiment, sour tamarind, MSG, and raw garlic.
“This dish has a flavor not for shy people,” Sami says.
“That’s right!” agrees Sheng emphatically, lamenting that she later will smell like crab paste.
Purple sticky rice that has been cooking on a propane burner in the backyard is brought in and dumped onto a giant platter. Sheng’s two youngest leap to mix it with paddles, and a portion is set aside to reboil with coconut milk for dessert: sticky rice with mango.
Leo squeezes lime onto a chopped raw striped bass and mixes it with herbs and toasted rice flour to prepare the larb, which can be made with raw or cooked meat or fish and is considered the national dish of Laos.
The mild fish larb is intensely herbaceous, with a pleasant nutty overtone from the toasted rice flour and a heady lemongrass kick. Sami’s publisher told her that “It only takes one recipe to sell a cookbook,” and she is confident that larb is that one dish.
The table is comically overloaded with multiple serving platters. There is scarcely room for plates, so everyone balances theirs on the table’s edge. Larb is spooned onto lettuce leaves and topped with the ubiquitous fiery chili condiment, which Sami remembers as her first introduction to Hmong cuisine.
The common use of bitter ingredients—as in the sautéed ground pork with lemongrass and bitter bamboo shoots and the boiled bitter melon stuffed with pork—exploits a flavor that Western cuisine largely neglects but that adds a complexity and backbone to Hmong dishes. Sheng and Blia both agree that, as they age, they increasingly appreciate Hmong cooking’s bitter and sour flavors.
Everyone trades stories around the dinner table. Sheng’s brother Meng laughs, recalling a time when he was out fishing and foraged a “really nice-looking root” for his mom, which he thought was medicinal. She boiled and drank it, only to discover upon breaking out with a rash that it was a poison-oak root.
They laugh merrily between bites and sip cool, lightly sweet cucumber water to temper the heat of the chilies. And the dinner is over all too soon. Once again, the women pitch in to clear the table and clean up.
Sami looks through old pictures and is caught up in reverie over the history of the two families. Her eyes cloud over as she recalls when Sheng first moved in and how they helped her learn to read and write English.
“This is a satisfying way to complete that circle,” she says.