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Hmong, The

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Summer Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(2) page(s): 21, 32, and 33

Whether you call them Miao, Mong, Meo, or Hmong may depend upon where you live. In the United States the preferred name is Hmong. In China it is Miao or Meo and more than eight million folk of this ethnic group live there. Millions more live in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. Some say they migrated to these countries in the 19th century. Others strongly disagree.

Everyone agrees that in the past half-century many Miao people came to the United States. Some believe that they then made a name change to Hmong because they did not like being called by a cat-sound. Actually, in China these people reject the name of Miao because it can mean wild or barbarian instead of the more common meaning of sprout or weed. While the Chinese use the common spelling of Miao, it can be transliterated, that is spelled in English in many ways. The Meo spelling closely resembles a dialect interpretation, which is calling them ’embroidery people.’

Those that research this culture say that the pronunciation can be ancient and was used two thousand years ago. Certainly, there are references as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 CE) when it was applied to a group of peoples linguistically and culturally differentiated from the Han. Ethnographers believe that there are more than twelve million people of this ethnic group who are not closely related to any other group in China or Southeast Asia. In addition, close to half a million now live in the United States. The largest groups outside of China and Southeast Asia are in California, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Smaller numbers of them live in twenty-seven other states.

In China, the largest concentration of what Americans call the 'Miao people' live in China's Southwest with sizable concentrations in Guizhou, Yunnan, and Western Hunan, and lesser numbers in western Hubei, Guangxi, Sichuan, and on Hainan Island. Some say that this minority live everywhere in China and that many of them are animists or worshipers of trees, rocks, even caves. Everyone agrees that they are not related to the Han Chinese, though in recent years intermarriage make many of them related now.

Another item of conflict or confusion is their language. Some fifty or so years ago the Hmong developed a written language. All agree it is considered in the Sino-Tibetan family. Their language consists of seven tones with words mostly monosyllabic. There are no gender words in their language, rare is the use of a pronoun, and there is an absence of various forms of the same word such as eat and eating.

The Hmong love singing, dancing, celebrating, and eating. This agricultural group of people are known for their embroidery and for the magnificent silver ornaments they wear on festival days. Their most important holidays are New Year’s Day, and Rice, Flower Hill, Chixin, and Good Harvest Festivals. The New Year festival can be very special if it is the one that comes every thirteenth year when it is called the Guzang Festival. On all holidays, villagers gather with their reed pipes called usheng, be they tiny or exceeding six feet in length. They use them in competitions and not as an accompaniment to singing.

The Chinese government thinks the Hmong are a homogenous peoples. They see them as one of the largest minority populations in their country’s Southwest. These people do not see themselves as one group. Neither do many who write about them. Some materials report that they are anywhere from sixteen to one hundred twenty-four different groups including the Long-horn Miao, the Short-horn Miao, the Bench Miao, Short-shirt Miao, Flashing Miao, White Miao, Yellow Maio, Blue Miao, and the Dehang Miao; these are the largest, but far from all of the groups in China. They live in many areas of the country and in other Asian countries. The same authors who differentiate among groups, believe this ethnic population originated in China’s Yellow River valley before migrating to the southwestern provinces during or just after the East Han Dynasty (25 - 220 CE). Some say that they may go back four thousand years and may have originated in some of the regions where they now live.

In any case, nowadays the various groups are differentiated by their hair styles, varied dress, fabric design and usage, and a varied set of beliefs. For example, Long-horn Miao use forty yards of fabric in their headdresses, Qing Maio make batik, rarely embroider, and have different headdresses, etc. These differences may have occurred because they lived in so many different regions of the country. What is interesting is that their food habits stayed rather similar, but they are not uniform. There is variation in food use during holidays, and there are differences in when each one is celebrated. In Southeast Guizhou, specifically in Kaili and Xiaoshen, this minority celebrates the New Year between October 5th and November 25th while nearby in Gaili, the holiday is not in full swing until mid-January.

Staple foods for all Hmong are rice, corn, and wheat. They use beans, melons, and vegetables to flavor their staples. These change from region to region and group to group. In Chengbu in the Hunan Province, Hmong eat wu fan which is a sticky glutinous rice that turns purplish-blue due to the addition of a very dark extract made from a black grass. This rice can be used as a gift if it is wrapped in bamboo leaves or in pieces of bamboo. In an autonomous county in Guangxi, the Rongshiu group flavors their staple foods not by coloring but rather by adding pickled pork, chicken, or fish to them. They also adore sour soups.

One sour soup is baishu gudaho. It is made with large pieces of pickled pork and dried red peppers. Should you travel to Feng Huang, which is near Jishou, you are sure to have it at virtually every meal. Other soups can be sweet, or sweet and sour. They flavor these soups by preparing a special flour made from corn or soybeans. The flour is mixed with salt, pepper, and garlic, and it is sprinkled on the soup before or after frying the flour in tea-seed oil. Among the Dehang, meals include sour fish or sour meat, and sour soup. All can be enhanced with fried peach-blossom insects and fried larvae. With their soup and their meals, they drink glutinous rice tea and a wine made from corn.

Food at the Rice festival in Guizhou can take on special meaning. One of these can be when a man asks his special woman for rice colored red or blue, purple or green. If she fancies him, she will return to the following festival or come the following year and hand him a handkerchief or basket filled with juice-colored rice of his choice. Doing so returns his amorous feelings. Then they eat it together using their fingers and this seals the obvious arrangement. Some amorous situations are made simply by exchanging songs or drinks. So, if someone offers you a cup of wine and you accept it with both hands, be prepared to drink it bottoms up, at a minimum. At one of their festivals in China, my guide warned me to control my hands, sit on them if need be, he said. He also advised that I never sing a song in reply should I want to keep my current husband. In fact, songs are not sung even by children, they are reserved as tools of courtship.

Most homes of this ethnic nationality are minimalisitc with hearth and cooking stove the only ’must have’ items; sometimes a rice pounder, too. Before moving in, these people dig a hole and place as many grains of rice in it as there are people in the family. The next morning, should these be moved, they need to move, as well. If not, before they get settled, two chickens are sacrificed to consecrate their home altar, which is another ‘must’ in every home.

In China, major foods of this ethnic population beyond their staples and those that flavor them are peppers, onions, pumpkins, mustard greens, and many varieties of sweet potatoes. At all meals, sticky rice is eaten along with these vegetables, and they are most often boiled. They season them not with salt but with chili peppers and use the dipping sauce that follows to do so. They eat noodles, which they call rice sticks, and can season them with this sauce, as well.

There are very few cookbooks with recipes of the Hmong or Miao people. There are some English-language pamphlets available in a Hmong store in Minneapolis (2601 12th Avenue South) and in several Asian food markets in St. Paul. For more information, look up and contact the First Presbyterian Church in South St. Paul; they are just over the river from Minneapolis.

The following recipes are adapted from the Hmong Recipe Cook Book which was done in cooperation with the New Citizens Hmong Garden Project. Both were sponsored by this South Saint Paul church. We hope you try and enjoy them. The Pickled Cucumber and Chicken Soup that we like, is thanks to a Hmong subscriber. Should you know of any Hmong cookbooks, do write, then we can share that information with our readers.
Blossom and Egg , Saute
16 pumpkin or squash blossoms
3 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 Tablespoon corn oil
1 Tablespoon chopped coriander or coriander sprigs
1. Wash the blossoms, remove their stems, and cut them into one-inch pieces.
2. Mix blossoms and the beaten eggs and ground pepper.
3. Heat oil in a fry pan or wok and pour in the egg mixture and stir until set. Sprinkle coriander on top and serve.
Spicy Dipping Sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 or 3 red chili peppers
2 scallions, minced
1/2 cup coriander leaves, minced
1. Use a mortar and pestle, grind these ingredients together. Then put this in a small bowl to be added to every dish, as desired.
2. Refrigerate the sauce when not in use.
Pork and Mustard Green Soup
1 to 2 pounds of boneless pork
1 pork bone
8 cups of pickled mustard greens (see below), cut into one-inch pieces
ground white pepper, to taste
1 stalk lemon grass, soft part minced
1/4 cup coriander leaves
1. Cook pork and the pork bone in three cups of boiling water, or more, to cover the meat, for two hours. Remove meat and cool it and the soup.
2. Remove fat and meat from both, discard the fat and cut the meat into one-inch pieces. Return to the stock and add eight cups of boiling water, then add the greens, lemon grass and pepper, and simmer for five to ten minutes. Add the coriander and serve with the dipping sauce on the side.
Pickled Mustard Greens I
8 cups of mustard greens, each leaf twisted and bruised
3 Tablespoons coarse salt
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 Tablespoons white vinegar
1. Wash greens with hot water and pack them into a crock or glass container. 2. Mix salt, sugar, and vinegar and one cup of hot water. Pour this mixture over the greens, and if not enough to cover, add more water until they are covered with water.
3. Put a plate on top and a full unopened can on the plate. Set aside in a draft-free location for three days. Then remove and rinse the greens, saving the brine. Rinse the crock and put brine and greens back into it and refrigerate until ready to use.
Pickled Cucumber and Chicken Soup
2 chicken legs, each chopped into three pieces
2 slices fresh ginger, slivered
4 ounces pickled cucumber
2 Tablespoons juice from the above pickles
3 cloves garlic, each cut in half
6 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. But all the ingredients in a pot and bring to the boil.
2. Turn the heat down and simmer for twenty minutes, then serve.

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