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.
The 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]
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.
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.