Trailblazers 2017: Yia Vang

Yia Vang // Photo courtesy Union Kitchen

Yia Vang // Photo courtesy Union Kitchen

What is Hmong food? And a follow-up question: Shouldn’t we know what Hmong food is by now? St. Paul boasts the largest number of Hmong Americans of any city in the U.S. and is home to two Hmong market complexes, each brimming with purple rice and papaya salad. And yet, we remain mostly in the dark about Hmong food’s influences and flavors, and its place in our dinner rotation.

It seems that no matter how many times Andrew Zimmern reminds Minnesotans of the culinary treasure that is Hmong food in St. Paul, it’s taken a different kind of evangelist to make it immediate and understandable—someone who understands how younger Minnesotans are eating, someone with the enthusiasm and willpower to be a de facto cultural interpreter. Yia Vang is doing this trailblazing work.

What we’ve learned from Vang in 2017 is that Hmong food isn’t so much a collection of ingredients but a way of thinking. It’s as much about adapting and persevering as it is about lemongrass and garlic. It’s about the elegant art of recollection. It’s about remembering how your grandmother cooked when you’re making a dish your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.

Vang’s food—most often tasted through his Union Kitchen series of pop-ups—is comforting, fragrant, textured, and lively. He takes the Hmong superfecta of rice/meat/broth/spice and plates them in a way that makes sense to Twin Cities diners. It may look like fried chicken or be covered with tater tots, but it tastes like Laos and China and St. Paul and various points in between.

Vang is promoting his cuisine outside of restaurants, too. He’s prepared a Hmong hotdish for Local Crate. He’s hosted cooking demonstrations alongside his mother at The Good Acre. He’s helped with recipe development at Roots for the Home Team. He’s attracted media attention this year from NPR, PRI, KFAI, and recently, a documentary film crew from Singapore.

Hmong food in Minnesota is not the same as it was 20 years ago, and 20 years from now it will be different again. With a boyish grin and a palpable love of feeding people, trust that Vang will be there to help us understand it along the way.

Trailblazers are the people, ideas, businesses, and organizations doing necessary, important, and groundbreaking work in the realms of food, drink, and culture. See the rest of The Growler’s 2017 Trailblazers here.

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.