WHILE exotic, Far East dishes - fragrant with lemongrass, ginger, and coriander - intrigue mainstream America, Laotians new to the United States are becoming enamored of an all-American vegetable: corn on the cob. ``My mother grows corn in her garden,'' says Ly Kue, a Hmong social worker from Laos. ``When it is fresh from the fields, we cook a lot in a big pot and put it all on the table to make a real feast of it with plenty of butter,'' she says.
There are some 15,000 Southeast Asian immigrants living in Rhode Island today, 2,500 of them Hmong. All but a handful of these Asian immigrants - Vietnamese and Cambodians, too - arrived in the late '70s, at the close of the Vietnam war. Xang (Sam) Xiong, Miss Kue's fianc'e, is a manager at the Socio-Economic Development Center for Southeast Asians. Sam came to Providence with his parents and two of his five brothers in 1976, at a time when there were only five other Hmong families in the state. Today, his parents and three brothers (now married) still live nearby.
The Hmong, rural people who eat simple, well-balanced food, are too hardworking, perhaps, to follow in the footsteps of their immigrant forbears. Chinese, Indian, and other ethnic groups popularized their cuisines by opening restaurants intended to serve their own populations. The Hmong, however, don't seem to eat out. Their contribution is more likely to be in the production end: They are prodigious farmers. Meanwhile, the Hmong seem quite happy to adapt American habits and foodstuffs, contribute to the larger community, and preserve their culture.
Mr. Xiong's mother, Song Xiong, grows corn. But more important, she grows vegetables native to her country that are unknown or scarce in local markets. The Hmong raised many of their own foods in Laos, and most brought seeds with them or had them sent from home. Snow peas, coriander, onions, and Oriental greens are easy to spot in the small community garden plot near her home.
A visitor here is greeted by the pungent, sweet, aroma of fresh coriander mixed with the sharp tang of freshly pulled scallions. Xiong waves to several women weeding with hoes - her cousins, she explains.
In a second, larger community garden plot in nearby Cranston, R.I., she has interplanted corn with a climbing bean or cucumber - for each plant, a corn stalk to climb. Between each corn and bean combination she has planted a special, leafy Hmong green that is somewhat like a combination of lettuce and mustard green.
This leafy green is the main herb-vegetable in Hmong cooking and is called zaub ntsuab. Xiong gave me a small plate of pickled zaub to taste. It has a pleasant, lemony-sour flavor. ``It's a fine dish for hot summer meals,'' says Nhia Xiong, Sam's father. It is often prepared as a bowl of zaub ntsuab, literally, ``vegetables without salt.'' The broth or cooking water is reserved for drinking.
Song was expecting relatives on this day, and her son Xia is in the kitchen wrapping rice paper around a filling for spring rolls while his wife Maly cooks them in hot oil.
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.)
``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.