A Tasty Melting Pot
ST. PAUL, MINN. --It's 10 a.m. on a breathlessly hot Sunday morning, but Vallay Moua Varro is too busy to notice the weather. Standing behind a couple of tables under the roof of an open-air farmers' market near downtown, she keeps up a constant patter as she bags bunches of bright-green leaves with tiny shoots curling around them. "Squash vines and leaves," she offers with a smile. The Hmong steam them and add a little garlic, she explains. "If you don't like them, you're only out a buck," she cajoles two middle-aged women, who buy two bunches. "If we like them," they tell her, "we'll be back!"
More and more Minnesotans are discovering Hmong cooking. The state is home to some 60,000 ethnic Hmong immigrants, many of them refugees who began arriving mainly from Laos after the Vietnam War. At the farmers' market, plastic ID placards at each vendor's table display names like Vang, Vue, Xiong, and Yang, proclaiming a very different heritage from the region's earlier German and Scandinavian farmers. And some of the produce that spills over the tables is likewise unfamiliar to northern European palates: 2-foot-long, curvy kukuzi squash; dark-green bitter melon, called "the alligator" by Hmong children because of its wrinkly skin; tiny, fiery red peppers.
Ethnic eats. Like the English, Irish, Italians, and Germans before them, Hmong immigrants have brought their own ingredients and traditions to the American table. But not every ethnic cuisine has had a lasting impact. Today, there are few culinary relics from 19th-century German immigrants, although a meat-and-potatoes dinner (washed down with beer) remains a classic American meal. Italian immigrant food, on the other hand, has a devout following, even if it is not exactly true to its roots, writes John Mariani in his book America Eats Out. Throngs of southern Italians, arriving in the late 1800s and early 1900s, adapted native dishes to suit American palates and ingredients, adding more meat and reducing the spice in pizzas and pasta.
The Asian-food invasion began in the mid-1900s. Drawn to the West Coast by the California gold rush in 1849, Chinese immigrants made a living in food-service businesses, which were fairly cheap to run and required plenty of hired hands. Soon, "going out for Chinese" became the hallmark of adventurous dining, though restaurant chow mein, chop suey, and egg foo yong bear little resemblance to authentic Chinese food.
Chinese food left Americans hungry for more Asian dishes. And there are now plenty of options. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 turned Asian cuisine into a major force in American food history by adjusting quotas that favored northwestern Europeans. More important, it exempted close relatives of immigrants already in the United States from these quotas. As a result, Asian immigration more than quadrupled by 1970; Asians and Latin Americans made up 75 percent of the 4 million immigrants to the United States in the '70s.
Going mainstream. New flavors began finding their way into our restaurants: noodle-based dishes like the Vietnamese beef soup called pho or the lime- and tamarind-spiked pad Thai, deep-fried spiced potato-stuffed samosas from India, and preserved Korean vegetables called kimchi. Some of these immigrant imports have gone mainstream. "Ten years ago, sushi was like, 'Eew, raw fish!' " says Ed Schoenfeld, a Chinese-food expert who specializes in new restaurants. "Now, everyone's eating it."