Hmongs Enjoy Eating American
Corn and doughnuts are adopted, traditions endure - and the search for purple rice goes on
(Page 2 of 2)
Short-grain rice cooks in a steamer made of straw. Song, who tends her grandchildren as carefully as her garden, carries her youngest grandchild on her back in a handsome, hand-embroidered back strap. (The Hmong are known for their embroidery: The Rhode Island School of Design mounted a show of Hmong work this past spring.)Skip to next paragraph
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``Traditionally, Hmongs have a vegetable-based diet, but they also like meat,'' says Patricia Symonds, an anthropologist who lived with Hmongs in Asia for 18 months while researching her doctoral thesis. ``In Laos, the forests and mountain streams were a handy source of game in addition to domestic animals.''
Adjusting to a sophisticated Western culture is not easy, but the Hmong strike one as an energetic people who seem to be able to maintain their customs while assimilating enough American culture and customs to be active members of a new community.
FOR another meal, Sam and Ly prepared steamed rice along with bean thread noodles cooked with bean sprouts, mushrooms, and other vegetables, as well as a tureen of tender, delicious squid.
Both Sam and Ly come from large families; Ly has five brothers and sisters. Her mother is very conservative she explains: ``Mother wants to have soup every day and more than two dishes each meal, and rice and a vegetable for breakfast.''
Most older Hmong continue the traditional Hmong breakfast of rice and some protein or vegetable, but younger Hmong-Americans get by on American-style breakfast cereals or often nothing at all.
``Most of us skip meals, now,'' says Sam. ``We go to Dunkin' Donuts once in a while. We like pizza.'' He had just a muffin for breakfast.
Some Hmongs knew about American convenience foods and soft drinks, both available from military post exchanges in Laos. These foods intrigued them, but some say they left their appetites unsatisfied.
``In Laos, they all work so hard they eat often,'' says anthropologist Symonds. ``Children snack a lot - always eating something like a little rice in a banana leaf or a handful of berries. Here, unfortunately, they're apt to eat the typical American snack food, which is not as nutritious,'' she says. Hmong meals are unique in the nearly total absence of desserts and sweets.
But one food that causes a nostalgic excitement among Hmongs is purple rice. ``If only we had some purple rice! That is one thing we can't get here,'' Ly says. ``It's a special treat for holidays and we miss it.''
Sam's brother Xia describes purple rice as a natural, undyed strain. ``It has a great aroma when it is steaming,'' he says. ``It fills the whole house, and it is very nice.'' The rice is sometimes mixed with coconut and a little sugar and fashioned into cakes.
Hmongs understandably feel some disorientation in the United States, so far from home, and with family members and relatives sometimes scattered across the country. Song and Nhia Xiong have managed to keep most of their family in the same city (though two sons are in Paris), and now they enjoy family gatherings when they all share in traditional foods and visit with the newest grandchildren. From as far away as Nebraska and Minnesota, relatives come to enjoy seasonal observances.
First of a series. Next Wednesday: Vietnamese cuisine.