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Miao: China's Fifth Largest Ethnic Group

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Fall Volume: 2018 Issue: 25(3) pages: 30 to 32

One of China’s largest minority populations, the fifth in size, the Miao, now probably include ten million according to the last census in 2010. These folk are linguistically related and speak one of the Miao-Yao language families that includes the three main dialects of Central, Northern, and Southern Miao-Yao. The Chinese government did help them ease oral differences with each other by helping them develop a written language.

In the United States (US), they call themselves Hmong as they do not like the name of cats crying out. In China, they are not excited about their name either, as it is slang for ‘barbarian.’ Others call them or they are called Xing, Qo, Xiang, A-hmao, Meau, Mo, Ka Nao, Hmu or other self-designated names. In China, the government since the late 1940s have grouped all of these folk simply as Miao.

Theirs is more than a five thousand year history. Many of them believe they may be descended from the Jiuli tribe, led by Chiyou, defeated at the Battle of Zhuolu on the border of Hebei and Loaning Provinces. All do not agree, many say they lived in what is now China’s southwest in either Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, or in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, or in Sichuan, Guangdong, or in Hainan. Still others believe they were the first people to settle in present day China. These days many live outside China in Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Thailand, or in the US. Thousands did come to Western US cities when their resettlement was supported by a host of volunteer agencies.

Some say and believe they are descended from aboriginal groups that gave them a hard time years ago and so they left their homeland and moved to larger cities where they now live. Not all like or believe they are Miao, or think they are partially Miao. They name themselves by the color of their women’s clothes; and if, for instance, they wear black tops, they call themselves Black Miao, or Green or Blue Miao, etc.

One legend some of them tell us is that they are descended from the Juili tribe, defeated in battle by two large military battalions. Or, they may be connected to the Daxi culture from six thousand years ago. Others tell other stories including that their ancestors were the first to cultivate or domesticate rice; maybe lived in the Shandong Province or nearby in Pre-Qin times (before 221 BCE). One group even said they may not be Han Chinese at all.

Not experts in their or anyone’s history, they did and still cook their rice in huge quantities needing to do so at least twice every day. Theirs is a patrilineal animistic group who love hot pepper sauces with beef, chicken, pork, or doufu. They prefer eating sticky rice with their hands, and they like pork mixed with egg, rice, corn, or wheat and with other meats and bean threads, and with soups sweetened with fried flour and long-soaked soy beans.

Common Miao recipes were published in the Summer 2002 issue, a few adapted from pamphlets found at a Hmong food store in Minneapolis where many in the US now live. The largest concentration of Hmong in the US reside in California, but we did not discover any Hmong recipe publications there. The booklet we found has recipes in cooperation with the New Citizens Hmong Garden Project sponsored by the South Saint Paul Church in MN. There are other groups in Rhode Island with booklets, but none was available when we looked there, we were told most main meals did include, onions, mustard greens, sweet potatoes, and prepared sauces. If you go to where we found the one whose recipes we worked with, note it is at 2601 12th Avenue South.

Their foods differed little from those we tasted in China where we did learn they do eat differently in different places. Several we spoke to related unasked, that they are proud and did help Chairman Mao escape the communists when they were farmers in China. Another point of pride was in the US, their women do make money selling their crafts.

We learned that Miao do not like to marry someone with the same family name even if not related. There are many other marital practices, and different celebrations of different holidays depending on where they came from. Some are the same holiday practiced on different days or dates. One example, several Hmong ladies in different places, did tell us of enjoying Ya Nu’s birthday. However, not all said it was April 8th or a day related on the Lunar calendar when they enjoyed that event. He was one of their ancient honored leaders. They also said they celebrate Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival, Flower Mountain Holiday, New Rice Festival, Sister’s Holiday, Autumn Market Day, and Spring Festival, on different days, which can be months apart.

The Maio/Hmong have a rich heritage; most are orally shared songs and stories, a few are folk dances they say tell tales of their past. These seem similar no matter where they did or now live, and they are popular and important. They have survived for generations even though before 1956, they had no written language until the Chinese government did help then put one together.

In China now, they can and do speak to and understand each other, thanks to required public education. Almost all do recognizable and beautiful arts and crafts, embroidery, waxbatik, making of silver ornaments, and paper-cutouts; and most can play the lusheng, their special long bamboo pipe instruments of five or six feet in length.

In China, many of these folk live in wooden houses sitting on tall pillars that have tiled roofs. Their animals are kept underneath the floor they live on and where their kitchens are. They do store some staples below, often rice, glutinous rice, maize, millet, sweet potatoes, or other starches. These they cook with meat and in an acidic soup or sauces, and serve them with pickled or sour vegetables. Some were not cooked but made packed in sealed jars stored for several months. Once opened, they eat and love them.

Most Miao prepare and eat their sauces using mortar and pestle, steamers, spoons, forks, and chopsticks. They rarely use milk products, adore all meats, and eat many different fruits and vegetables. At funerals, their men wear very elaborate clothes, but their women do not, just adorn themselves with lots of silver jewelry. They like their homes to have one door facing East; and why we could not learn. We did learn their single folk date and go in and out of these east-facing doors day and night to visit those of the opposite sex. All eat traditional foods including colored rice balls, and drink homemade rice wine with the sour foods.

The Summer issue of 2002 includes three of their loved recipes, particularly the one called Spicy Dipping Sauce, also known as Hot Pepper Sauce. They use it with most of their foods, and feel like they are lost when this is missing from their daily diet. Enjoy their other recipes below; and should you learn of others, we hope you will share them with us.

Steak With Gall Bladder

pound steak filet or loin, cut in quarter-inch slices, broiled for two minutes, cooled, and angle-sliced
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves
1 cup freshly chopped fresh basil
½ cup scallions, cut lengthwise and coarsely chopped
1 cup gall bladder, chopped
1 to 2 Tablespoons finely minced hot peppers
½ cup cilantro, coarsely minced
2 teaspoons Chinese fish sauce
2 Tablespoons minced fresh garlic
3 Tablespoons lemon or lime juice
2 Tablespoons rice flour
1 small Asian eggplant, sliced thinly then lightly fried


1. Cut broiled meat and the gall bladder into small strips, and put them in a bowl.
2. To them, add mint, basil, scallions, hot peppers, cilantro, fish sauce, garlic, juice, rice and the rice flour, and stir well.
3. Then, into each slice of eggplant, add a few tablespoons of this mixture and roll this into each slice.

Mustard Greens Soup

½ cup chopped smoked pork or chopped belly pork
3 quarts broth
2 pounds mustard greens, very coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon salt (optional)


1. Simmer pork covered in broth for half an hour, and skim as needed.
2. Add mustard greens and salt, and stir and simmer three more minutes, then serve.

Pork and Eggs

1½ cups granulated sugar
2 pounds pork ribs, boned, then cut into half-inch pieces
2 cups onions sliced thinly
3 Tablespoons minced garlic
3 Tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
10 hard-cooked eggs, shells removed and discarded
2 cups cooked hot rice


1. Heat sugar with two cups of cold water stirring with a wooden spoon until the sugar is dissolved and it turns a light brown.
2. Remove this from the heat and set it aside.
3. Put pork in another pot with a quart of water and when boiled, reduce the heat, skim off any foam, then simmer for one hour, add the onions and garlic, and the black vinegar and the caramelized sugar, and eggs and simmer this for half an hour until the eggs are evenly browned.
4. Serve with the hot rice, each person taking some of the rice, an egg, and some of the sugar mixture, cutting the egg into small pieces, adding some of the onion-garlic mixture, stirring, and eating it with hands or chopsticks.

Chicken Wings and Bitter Melon

2 bitter melons, cut in half the long way, seeds removed and discarded, and cut in half-inch slices
8 chicken wings, tips discarded, wings cut in four
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon Chinese wine vinegar


1. Soak bitter melons in water, toss them for three to five minutes, then discard the water.
2. Mix these bitter melon pieces, the wings, and the salt and let this stand for five minutes.
3. Heat oil in a wok of fry pan, add all these ingredients and the wine vinegar, and stir-fry until crisp, about five to ten minutes, stirring continuously. Then transfer to a platter, and serve.

Pork and Bean Thread Noodles

1 pound ground pork
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro
½ cup coarsely chopped scallions
1 Tablespoon Chinese fish sauce
juice of half a lemon
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon dried mint leaves
1 piquant pepper, seeded and minced
1 ounce bean thread noodles, soaked for ten minutes, then simmer with four cups of water for ten minutes, and then drained them well


1. Mix pork and oil, put in a pre-heated wok or fry pan, and stir-fry for three minutes. Discard excess oil, the add cilantro, scallions, fish sauce, black pepper, mint leaves, and piquant pepper pieces and stir-fry for three minutes.
2. Serve in a pre-heated bowl on the cooked bean threads.

Doufu With Chicken

5 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 eggs, beaten well
½ teaspoon coarse salt
2 pounds soft doufu, cut in one-inch pieces
1 cup chicken thigh meat, cut in half-inch pieces
2 cups onions, diced
3 cloves fresh garlic, sliced
½ cup chicken broth
1 Tablespoon Chinese fish sauce
1 Tablespoon Chinese red wine vinegar


1. Heat wok or fry-pan, add half the oil then the eggs and scramble them until soft, then set them aside.
2. Add and heat the rest of the oil, and fry the doufu until lightly browned on all sides, and remove them from the pan, then add the chicken pieces, onions, and the garlic and stir-fry them for two minutes.
3. Add the broth, fish sauce, vinegar, and the doufu , cover, add the chicken pieces and simmer for five minutes, remove the cover, and boil for two minutes, then serve.

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