Gran Torino: Dining Among the Hmong
In the new movie, “Gran Torino”, Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a veteran of the Korean war who has lived in the same neighborhood for years and watched as his neighbors moved out replaced by immigrant “Hmong” people of Southeast Asia. He resents them living in his neighborhood, and they resent him living in theirs. As the movie unfolded, I could not help but be reminded how many times in American history a similar scene played out. Many immigrants at many times in this nation’s history have sought refuge behind the Statue of Liberty, and, just as the Hmong do, people from other cultures tend to flock together in their new home. Think of the Burroughs of New York and other cities, Chinatown in San Francisco, or even ethnically centered areas of your own town. People bring their customs, traditions, and foods along with them, and, even though the transition and assimilation often comes with turmoil, everyone usually benefits in the end.
America benefits from the addition of new elements to its melting pot culture, and people of contributing cultures benefit from life in the greatest country on the planet. The Hmong represent one of the recent chapters of large-scale immigration into this country. There are an estimated 180,000 Hmong living in the U.S., with most of them choosing the Midwest or California as their new home. Naturally, there is conflict with most Americans thinking the Hmong are either Chinese or Vietnamese, but most are from the hills of Laos and aided the U.S. in the secret part of the war in Viet Nam. When the communist North prevailed in that conflict, the Hmong suffered much the same fate as the Native Americans who aided the British here in America in both the Seven Years War and the War of 1812. Finding a new home was essential to survival. America seemed like a good choice.
Once established in America, they tried to continue their lives “business as usual,” and that included living almost like a clan and sharing the same foods. Like Americans, Hmong eat three meals a day, except that the three Hmong meals tend to be comprised of the same foods. The diet is primarily rice, but complimented with chicken, fish, green vegetables, noodle dishes and soups. They prefer to used home-grown foods, they avoid snacking, and like to share their meals in a clan setting. The dishes are augmented with protein from fish sauce and soy sauce, and most foods are stir-fried, boiled, stewed, or roasted. As this movie grows in popularity, expect to see Hmong entrees appearing on menus around town, if they have not already, and even a few, small Hmong restaurants making an appearance. Right now, Hmong mothers are struggling with their husbands wanting more traditional dishes, and their children wanting more American food.
As the Hmong people continue to settle in and adjust to American culture, we all can watch history repeat. We can watch this and other cultures assimilate to the American way of life and imagine what it was like for our own families years ago and the many immigrants who came with them. As for the movie, “Gran Torino”, it will touch you, even if it does set political correctness back two decades, and, more than anything else, it will spark you to investigate the foods and culture of displaced people who may have been living near you for 20 years or more in relative obscurity. I know it did for me, and I am on the lookout for a restaurant serving Americanized versions of traditional Hmong foods. When I find one, I will be sure to review and we all will enjoy the opportunity to dine among the Hmong.