Soil. Food. Culture.
The culture I have written about here has been about a broad group of Americans, which is not what I originally envisioned for this blog. I have become more and more interested in exploring the diverse groups of people that live in the Twin Cities. Food is a huge way you can explore a culture but I can’t explore culture solely by eating at a restaurant. I need to be more involved with that culture.
Asian culture has had my attention for the last 12 years. With all the books I have read on Asian cooking I will not start to really understand Asian food until I get in the kitchen with an Asian.
In Saint Paul we have a large Hmong population. Hmong culture is very interesting to me and I have slowly been learning more about it for years. I have one of very few Hmong cookbooks. It is a great insight to the Hmong kitchen and culture. I work with three Hmong guys and I love to ask questions about their culture.
One day I had a very nice conversation with a co-worker. He told me a brief history of the Hmong people and their language. I asked this co-worker if there were any Hmong restaurants around. He told me you have to go to the Hmong markets to get real Hmong food.
As a sort of Bizarre Foods challenge, my co-worker asked if I have very eaten stomach. I told him I was very unadventurous when it came to meat and told him I have not. He then told me about a dish called laarb– (I am spelling it the way he told me to.) It’s pronounced: La. It’s made with tripe. I told him we need to go out and have some laarb.
Yesterday he sent me a text saying he would pick my wife and I up some laarb. When I got to work and he had the laarb AND another staple dish of his culture, papaya salad. I gratefully took the gift and told him my wife and I would have a wonderful lunch the next day.
The next day I made some rice and Kristina picked up some egg rolls at the Asian market up the street. I warmed up the laarb to just above room temperature and the papaya salad to room temperature. Kristina dished out a little for us both. I took a cellphone picture of my wife and I with the food and sent it to my co-worker thanking him for the treat.
At this point does it really matter what I thought of it? No it doesn’t- I’ll tell you why. My co-worker gave me this special treat so I could learn more about his culture. I cannot take these national dishes and say anything but good about them- It would be like saying bad things about Hmong culture. I could easily wrap up this post singing the praises of this laarb and papaya salad meal.
With that being said- I feel you deserve the truth. The truth isn’t about Hmong culture or Hmong food. It is about me and how I enjoyed my gift. I want to view myself as a Anthony Bourdain wanna-be. If he can eat what he eats and tough it out so can I, right? There are a few differences between Tony and I. 1. He is paid well to travel the world eating food. 2. The cook is in his face waiting his reply. 3. There is also a camera in his face and he has a reputation to uphold. I didn’t have the same pressure to chew, swallow and smile politely.
I sat down to my plate of white rice, laarb, papaya salad and a egg roll. Kristina dug right in and I cut a small piece of tripe. I loaded my fork with rice, burying the tripe and put it in my mouth. I tried to chew. I got my teeth around the meat and started to press down until juice started to come out of it. I envisioned the intestines and juices. I ran to the garbage almost barfing all over my kitchen. I couldn’t get it out of my mouth quick enough.
I sat back down to try the papaya salad. I thought, ‘This is just fruit and vegetables, I can do this.’ It didn’t hesitate and put it in my mouth. I chewed and tasted like very hot spice and fish sauce. I ran back to my best friend the garbage can, gagging along the way. I not a big fan of really spicy stuff and I have never liked anything from water. My co-worker did warn me the salad was spicy. With a follow-up that he did not think it was all that spicy.
I sat back down to the table with tears in my eyes from gagging. Kristina was like, “WTF; Mr. ‘It’s an honor to eat this food?’ You’re spitting out the Hmong culture!” I was in shock to my reaction to the food. My wife is a Missionary Kid from Taiwan and she is more tolerant to food then I am. I am a giant wuss! She was able to eat a descent amount without any bad reactions.
When my co-worker asks, I will tell him. ‘My wife and I enjoyed the meal. It wasn’t what we are use to. It was a different texture and spicy.’ I will politely leave out the part with the gagging and the spitting and the garbage can and the rising out my mouth… My co-worker doesn’t know about the blog!
If you are asking, ‘What about the Daniel Fast?’I have a rule where I can break the fast if I am invited to a meal or a special occasion.
The laarb was a gift and an honor to receive. I am very appreciative to my co-worker for showing me more of his culture. Through this I realize things aren’t as easy and cut and dry as they seem. I do hope I can go to a Hmong market with my co-worker to try more Hmong food. If that happens I will be more emotionally prepared to try different foods.