(image courtesy of Union Hmong Kitchen)
With the Minnesota State Fair being held annually since the 1850s, the inaugural presence of Hmong cuisine, specifically Union Hmong Kitchen, is one that symbolizes the growth and importance of Hmong people and culture.
This year marked the first time Hmong cuisine was offered at the annual Minnesota State Fair. Union Hmong Kitchen, run by chef Yia Vang, made the debut at the Fair’s International Bazaar. Vang, a trained chef who started as a dishwasher, is one of seven siblings. His family settled in Wisconsin after he was born in a Thai refugee camp. Vang has gone on to be featured on National Geographic and CNN’s United Shades of America, and MSP Magazine named him 2019 “Chef of the Year” . Offering the distinct taste of Hmong food for the 12-day event, Vang aimed to spread his dishes and Hmong culture. The Minnesota State Fair also features Hmong Day, which includes Hmong artists and celebrities, but there had been no food offerings until this summer.
Vang’s pop-up shop, also named Union Hmong Kitchen, is located in Minneapolis’ North Loop, and has served Hmong food since 2016. In 2023, he plans to open a new restaurant, called Vinai, in Northeast Minneapolis.
Vang says Hmong food is ideal for the fair, since it is made to be carried around and stay warm. Some of Union Hmong Kitchen’s main offerings include sticky rice, Hmong sausage and Hilltribe chicken thigh. The sticky rice, which is purple, is something Vang really wanted to feature. Along with an emphasis on food, listing food items in Hmong was also an important aspect to include with the stall. Many Hmong, which is an ethnic group from Southeast Asia, resettled in Minnesota in 1975 after the United States pulled out of the Vietnam War, as communists retaliated against them for helping American armed forces. As many came to Minnesota in the 1970s, they convinced family friends to join them in the state. Minnesota has the second highest number of Hmong in the country, with over 66,000, second only to California. Many of the Hmong elderly in Minnesota, including Vang’s parents, do not speak English, so the ability for all Hmong to visit and order easily was ideal.
Chef Marshall Paulsen, who has experience working with the Birchwood Cafe and the Farmer’s Union Stand at the Fair for over 10 years, along with a few additional workers, helped Vang run the stall.They did everything from transporting materials to moving 16,000 pounds of rice, separating it into parts to avoid cracking the floor or having the whole amount fall over.
Vang uses food to tell a story, believing every dish has a narrative. The real excitement for him is that his food and Hmong culture, can be no different than any other Minnesota story and part of the “great Minnesota get-together".
Niles Rodgers is an Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He graduated in 2021 with a Master's degree in Asian Studies from George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, and is a native of the DMV region.