Found in translation: Simple, spicy pleasures of Hmong Beef Stir Fry

by Terry B on August 5, 2009

Tomatoes, cabbage, cilantro and jalapeño peppers give this Southeast Asian Beef with Tomatoes Stir Fry a fresh, lively taste. Recipe below.


If the Procrastinators of America ever get around to electing a president, I’m a shoo-in. The University of Minnesota Press sent me a review copy of Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America way back in April and, although I’ve spent a good deal of time looking at it, I’m only just now getting around to cooking from it.

cooking_from_the_heart2The Hmong are an Asian ethnic group in the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia, including southern China, northern Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. Cooking from the Heart’s dedication hints at their homeless history and strength as a people: “For centuries the Hmong have been a people without a country, always making the best of each new situation and remaining true to their culture. This book is dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the Hmong people.”

For centuries, the Hmong lived and farmed in central China. “Proud and stubbornly independent,” as the book’s introduction puts it, they refused to be subjugated by Chinese rulers. According to Wikipedia, “Hmong groups began a gradual southward migration in the 18th century due to political unrest and to find more arable land.” Spreading throughout much of Southeast Asia, by the 1950s, more than half of the Hmong people lived in what was then called Indochina, mostly in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Because of their reputation as fierce warriors, they were recruited by the CIA to fight in the Secret War against the Communists in Laos and later, in the Vietnam War. At the end of the war, they were singled out for persecution and thousands of families fled to Thailand; from there, many immigrated to the United States, France, Australia, Canada and French Guiana.

Oh, wait. This is a food blog. Well, all this has a certain amount of relevance. It explains that while some 3 million of the 4 to 5 million Hmong still call China home, you’ll find many influences in the Hmong kitchen, especially here in America. But if you’d like to know more about Hmong history and culture, by all means, read Cooking from the Heart or the excellent entry on Wikipedia.


Hmong cooking and the sharing of recipes is largely an oral tradition; as a result, this simple, earthy, fiery Southeast Asian cuisine is little known in the United States. So in Cooking from the Heart, authors Sheng Yang and Sami Scripter set out to gather more than 100 recipes from Hmong kitchens in America. Sheng, a Laos-born Hmong-American, and American-born Sami became friends nearly 30 years ago, when Sheng was a young teen and Sami was a young mother. Before they even shared much in the way of language, their experiences in the kitchen and the garden helped share their cuisines and cultures.

Besides recipes, the cookbook offers a brief history of the Hmong people as well as anecdotes, photographs and poetry that demonstrate the importance of food and cooking in Hmong culture, and they offer a dramatic perspective on the immigrant experience. The authors are the first to admit that many of these food traditions are being lost within the Hmong community in the United States. Time constraints, sometimes hard-to-find ingredients, the incursions of ubiquitous fast food and other issues are moving many young Hmong people away from cooking traditional foods. This book seeks to change some of that.

Hmong Beef with Tomatoes Stir Fry
[Nqaij Nyuj Kib Xyaw Txiv Lws Suav]
Serves 4
Adapted from
Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America

1/4 cup canola oil
3/4 pound flank steak or other beef, sliced into bite-sized pieces [see Kitchen Notes]
2 jalapeño peppers, thinly sliced [see Kitchen Notes]
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt [plus additional, if needed]
1/4 teaspoon each, cumin and dried thyme [see Kitchen Notes]
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 medium cabbage, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 green onions, green and white parts, cut into 3-inch pieces
1/2 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped [see Kitchen Notes]
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 medium-sized tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces

cooked white rice, either jasmine or long-grain

Heat a large, deep skillet or wok over a medium-high flame. Add oil. When it starts to shimmer, add meat, peppers, fish sauce, salt, cumin and thyme. Toss to combine and stir fry for 3 to 4 minutes. Add cabbage and green onions and stir fry for 2 to 3 minutes more.

Add cilantro, black pepper and tomatoes cook until tomatoes are just heated through and have released their juices. Serve over rice.

Kitchen Notes

Choosing and slicing the beef. The recipe calls simply for lean beef. Looking at various stir fry recipes, I saw flank steak mention a lot. When it is thinly sliced across the grain, it is flavorful and tender. I also saw various other steaks mentioned, and in some markets, you’ll find thinly sliced beef for stir frying. All are acceptable choices. If you’re slicing your own beef for this recipe, put the meat in the freezer for about 30 minutes first. It will make it slightly firmer and easier to slice thin. I sliced the flank steak across the grain into slices between 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch thick. I then cut the slices into bite-sized pieces. With really tender steaks like filet mignon, you can cut the meat into cubes, if you like.

Adjusting the heat. Hmong cooks like their food fiery. This recipe called for two hot Thai chili peppers. I took that to mean Bird’s Eye chili peppers, some of the hottest peppers out there. They clock in at 50,000 to 100,000 on the Scoville scale, a little cooler than the scary Scotch Bonnet, but considerably hotter than the jalapeño peppers I used, which register at a modest 2,500 to 8,000. I used two medium-sized peppers, seeds and all, which gave the dish a nice healthy dose of heat. If you like yours a little cooler, remove some of the seeds and inner ribs—that’s where the heat is. If you think you can take the heat, go for the Bird’s Eye peppers. Report back to me, if you do.

Adding flavor notes with herbs and spices. Hmong cooking, at least based on this book and some other things we’ve read, is big on heat and simple freshness. They don’t tend to use a lot of herbs and spices. Interestingly, though [and perhaps it’s just in the Hmong-American kitchen, not in Asian kitchens, where a whole different range of ingredients is readily available], prepared flavorings pop up often. MSG, in particular, and bouillon cubes, to name a couple. You’ll also see this in New Orleans cooking—garlic powder and onion powder, for instance. This recipe called for a tablespoon of Mrs. Dash seasoning. Instead of this, I added the clove of garlic and the cumin and dried thyme. Probably a different flavor than the Mrs. Dash would have provided, but I liked how the freshness and individual flavors of each ingredient came through. And unlike many Chinese dishes, there was no single starring flavor—they all worked in harmony.

Pile on the cilantro. We love cilantro. So when I saw this recipe called for a half a bunch of the stuff, I got excited. The original recipe calls for cutting it into 3-inch pieces. I cut off the stems at the base of the bunch and then just sliced the leafy top section into thirds. As someone who usually picks the leaves from the stems and chops them, this was totally freeing. And delicious.

Hungry for more recipes from this book? Try this Steamed Fish in Packets by Lydia over at The Perfect Pantry. Or visit the Cooking from the Heart website.


{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Christina August 5, 2009 at 12:57 am

This is a nice introduction to Hmong cooking.

When I lived in the San Joaquin Valley as a kid, we drove through Hmong farms to get to our house from town. The farms were incredibly neat and incredibly productive. Lemon grass lined the irrigation ditches. I, a wannabe farmer even as a little girl, always wanted to stop and wander through them. We never stopped.

Thanks for reminding me about those lovely patchwork farms.

katrina August 5, 2009 at 1:04 am

This sounds wonderful! (And even do-able for me)….Although we have Hmong living in this area, I had no idea what their culinary culture is. Thanks so much for enlightening me!

Alta August 5, 2009 at 12:32 pm

This looks delicious. And your description of this book makes me want to order a copy. I love fresh dishes such as this…and love even more when I have an opportunity to understand the history behind cooking. I would love to have this for lunch today!

Jean August 5, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Great post. I love to learn the cultural background of certain recipes and the people who created them. I think we all should think of who created these time-honored recipes we use today, and why.

Terry B August 5, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Christina—I can now see there was no way you weren’t going to spend your life without getting your hands dirty on a regular basis. Thanks for the lovely memory.

katrina—It’s quite doable. I hope you give it a try. And what are the odds of the first two commenters both having personal experiences with Hmong communities? The Internet is such a cool place.

Alta—Just remembering all the fresh tastes mingling with the heat of the peppers makes me want to have it for lunch too.

Jean—A friend recently sent me a photograph of some [probably] Mediterranean coastal village, brightly colored houses stacked so tightly on a rocky hillside that you couldn’t see any spaces between them. You know the kind of picture I mean. My absolutely first thought on seeing it was, “I wonder what I could get to eat there.” Food tells us so much about cultures—and in such a delicious way!

Ronnie Ann August 5, 2009 at 6:07 pm

One of the things I like most about Blue Kitchen is that you have a true respect for meat and meat dishes. As a butcher’s daughter, this makes me smile. I especially enjoy beautifully balanced and colorful meals like your Hmong Beef Stir Fry since it excites all parts of me. Appreciate the flavorful main dish as well as the cultural side dish. Thanks!

Kim, Ordinary Recipes Made Gourmet August 5, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Terry, thank you for this post about the Hmong people, I’ve always been interested in Asian culture and cuisine and I surely learned a lot today as well as my normal drooling over your food! 😀

Toni August 5, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Interesting post, Terry – as usual. I cannot decide what it is about this recipe that makes it Hmong, instead of just plain Chinese. But anything that calls for fiery peppers gets my attention!

Terry B August 5, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Thanks, Ronnie Ann! Any day I get praise from a butcher’s daughter is a good day for me.

Thanks, Kim! You are so unfailingly enthusiastic about food that I just know you’d be a fun dinner companion.

With your love of all things New Mexico, I’m not surprised that you’re all about fiery peppers, Toni. Regarding distinguishing this dish from Chinese cooking, we eat lots of Chinese food and order adventurously. I find that most of the Chinese cuisine we’re familiar with tends to be saucier than this dish. I’m not talking the brown glop that comes with most Americanized Chinese food, but distinctive regional sauces with a whole array of flavors. By comparison, the only sauce with this dish was really the liquid the tomatoes gave off as they cooked—well, and the meager two teaspoons of fish sauce that flavored the dish but added no appreciable liquid. As a result, each bite tasted like what it was—cabbage, tomato, beef, cilantro… Marion described this stir fry’s taste as “clean.” I think that pretty much nails it.

Teri August 5, 2009 at 9:43 pm

This recipe looks delicious. We lived in Wisconsin briefly in the mid- 1990s when the Hmong were settling in the region, and I first learned of their culture through an art exhibit about the “war quilts” they made while in camps on the borders in SE Asia. I’ve since seen a few documentary films about their adjustment to life here. I look forward your adaptation of this intriguing dish. Btw, I love cilantro, too.

Lydia August 5, 2009 at 11:10 pm

Although the recipes in this book are wonderful, it’s the information about the Hmong culture and cuisine that I’m finding most fascinating. I really knew nothing about this food or the context in which the cuisine has adapted here in the US. I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in Asian cooking.

Kalyn August 5, 2009 at 11:27 pm

It’s a great book isn’t it? This sounds like a wonderful meal.

Miakoda August 6, 2009 at 12:43 pm

What beautiful presentation. I love the play of colors…must be absolutely delicious. I do love stir-fries :)

Michelle August 6, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Hi there!! I just found your amazing blog, and I wanted to say how much I enjoy it! There are SO many freakin’ food blogs but yours really is unique and an educational read too! I’m a fellow Chicagoan…the Epic burger post was super helpful! :) Have a great Thursday!!

Terry B August 6, 2009 at 2:55 pm

Teri—That sounds like an amazing quilt exhibit. Regarding cilantro, we live in a mostly latino neighborhood. Recently, I saw a flier from a neighborhood market that featured a sale on cilantro, limit twelve bunches! Obviously a popular ingredient with my neighbors. That immediately made me want to cook something with lots of this delicious herb.

Lydia—We certainly plan to explore this cookbook some more.

Thanks, Kalyn! I have to admit, it was pretty tasty.

I love stir fries too, Miakoda, and we don’t do enough of them. They’re so good and so quick.

Thanks so much, Michelle! Now you’ve got me wanting an Epic burger again.

Melissa August 6, 2009 at 9:23 pm

This is right up my alley. So simple & the flavors so clean & so quick to cook. I usually am a sucker for sauces & lots of it, but this seems nice & light, a perfect summer dish. We needed to add more dishes to our repetoire, thanks Terry.

bibliochef August 9, 2009 at 1:22 am

This looks like a great recipe and a great book. I’ll be looking for it.

Kim, Ordinary Recipes Made Gourmet August 9, 2009 at 11:02 pm

Terry, what a great compliment! Thank you! I do love food – everything about it from the cooking to the flavoring of each layer to plating it up! Cooking for me is so therapeutic – I have a tough job and when the day is over I so look forward to whipping up something in the kitchen!

altadenahiker August 10, 2009 at 6:23 pm

I like very hot and spicy food. I dropped a tepin into my (fresh) tomato/garlic/celery sauce yesterday and processed the whole thing up. Some may call it a mistake; I call it challenging.

No one but me will ever eat this.

Terry B August 10, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Melissa—I do think this one is right up your alley. Hope you give it a try.

Thanks, bibliochef!

Kim—I think many of us feel that way. You get in the kitchen, start chopping, mixing, sautéing and life just starts feeling a little better, doesn’t it?

altadenahiker—You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. A little heat is interesting, but pain is kind of nature’s way of saying enough already. In fact, chilis apparently developed their heat to avoid being eaten.

gourmet August 11, 2009 at 7:35 am

Very nice Recipe, i like Asian recipes. They’re always good. :)

PaShia August 11, 2009 at 3:01 pm

Hey Terry–
I stumbled upon your recipe and was very shocked and happy to see “Hmong” in the recipe name. I am Hmong and I love to cook as well–and so do my mother and sister. It’s great to see this book and recipe out there, and you’ve made it look quite delicious! : ) Now I’ve got to get a hold of one of the books myself.

Terry B August 11, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Thanks for stopping by, gourmet!

PaShia—Thank you so much! I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to the Hmong culture through this book and am looking forward to exploring more of your cuisine.

diva August 14, 2009 at 8:10 am

have never tried Hmong cooking so this is a great intro to it. and with jalapeno peppers? makes me think this is so cool already :) x

Pang Vang October 8, 2009 at 4:49 am

You don’t know how shocked I was to stumble upon your post. I am a Hmong mother, and cooking was something I learned when I was my mother’s daughter’s; as a young girl. I am making a speech about “Who are the Hmong’s?” tommorrow in my public speaking class, and have been looking for more information that would help me with my informative speech. I just had to stop, and read your post on my people. You certainly have done your research on the Hmong’s, and I am very impressed. Many people may not know the origin of where the Hmong’s came from, and why they are in the U.S. now, but it’s times like these that makes it all better. Thanks for the recognizing the Hmong. I appreciate it alot.

Mee June 30, 2010 at 12:21 am

Very informative post. I have yet to get my hands on the cookbook but it looks and sounds really interesting. The only concern I have is that [traditional] Hmong people do not use any cumin or thyme (or any other American herb) in their traditional Hmong food. The main seasonings, besides various sauces, (oyster, soy, fish, hoisin, etc.) are salt, MSG and black pepper.

sarah December 4, 2010 at 9:17 pm

do you on the history of beef stir fry yes or no?

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