For anyone who does not live in Minnesota it may come as a surprise to you that St. Paul is home to the largest urban population of Hmong in the world. Yeah, in the world.
It may come as further surprise that despite this fact finding Hmong cuisine is actually pretty tough. Sure, there are a few restaurants spattered around but nothing in comparison to the other South-East Asian fare on offer in the twin cities.
Imagine the excitement then of discovering the hmong marketplace. Located close to the capitol building in St. Paul, and a mere 45 minute bike ride from my digs in downtown Minneapolis, the international market is nothing short of awesome.
Everything you could wish for is there. Outside there’s a covered market with vendors selling produce (much of which I didn’t recognize) and inside several buildings there is row upon row of units selling beauty products and pharmaceuticals, toys and shoes, clothes and DVDs. It completely transported me back to the many markets like this that I wandered through in South-East Asia.
And then, of course, there’s the food.
When I read in a local paper about: “thick strips of pork belly with a crackled exterior that’s kissed with smoky flavor,” and heard a local food writer describe it as, “essentially a quarter pound of bacon just for you!” I was basically on my bike and halfway there.
I didn’t end up opting for the quarter pound of bacon (do you think my arteries are thanking me?) but instead a bowl of pho with “crunchy fried pork”. Photos cannot do justice to the size of this thing. It was at least the size of my head and came with a plate of bean sprouts, fresh mint, fresh sweet basil, lime, and chili’s on the side, as well as a tray of condiments, just for me. All for $5.
The broth was so tasty – just the right amount of saltiness and great flavour, and the crunchy fried pork was out of this world. It’s definitely a texture you have to wrap your head around but if you’re a fan of crackling, you would dig this.
The mister went for Hmong sausage – a gigantic pork sausage with a lot of lemongrass flavour going on, but also a fair bit of gristle. It came with black rice (chewy and similar to sticky rice) and a chili based dipping sauce. Quite delicious by all accounts.
And if you go don’t forget to pick up a bubble tea on your way out – the red thai tea is immense!
If you want to read about Hmong immigration, you can learn more from the Minneapolis Foundation.
217 Como Ave., St. Paul,
Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.