As a young boy, Yia Vang thought hot dogs were “the greatest idea ever.”
To Vang, a Hmong refugee born in Thailand and living in Minnesota, an American hot dog represented more than meat wrapped with bread and covered in condiments.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I really see how food can bring a lot of people together,’” Vang said.
From an early age, Vang recognized that the hot dogs he heard his friends talk about eating at baseball games and his home-cooked traditional Hmong meals were very different.
These days, Vang uses Hmong “food philosophy” to cook his hot dogs.
“Hmong food isn’t a type of food; it’s a philosophy, a way of thinking about food,” Vang said. “We’re going to use all the same elements … but let’s just try different techniques.”
Thus Banh Mi hot dogs were created.
They are made every day at Union Hmong Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant Vang co-founded with his cousin Chris Her.
Don’t get it twisted – this isn’t your random Minnesota State Fair fusion. Vang’s recipes have purpose.
The restaurant’s cuisine centers on the tastes of the current generation of Minnesotan Hmong people. Hmong cooking in Minnesota is going to be different than Hmong cooking in California, Vang said. The way the ingredients are used is always changing.
Growing up, Vang loved food but didn’t like to cook. It was just a way to pay the bills. But as Vang’s interest in cooking grew, he realized it wasn’t just the delicious food he was passionate about, but the history and cultural aspects, as well.
“I really see how food can really bring a lot of people together,” he said. “That’s how it started for me.”
In cooking Hmong food, he had to reflect on his family’s history.
“Understanding deeper sacrifices my parents made and the things they had to do to get us to this country,” he said.
The Hmong are an ethnic refugee group who did not have a country of their own, which caused constant transition. With varying resources and climates, Hmong food is also constantly developing, Vang said.
Union Hmong Kitchen’s cuisine is also constantly adapting to serve the tastes of the current generation of Minnesotan Hmong people.
“A common struggle for immigrants is keeping their family’s culture and traditions,” Vang said. “I’m merely the vessel that gets to tell the story.”
The restaurant, which will be at Sociable Cider Werks for the next year, serves fried chicken with sweet and sour cucumbers, pickled red onions and Mama Vang’s hot sauce, which is named after his mother.
Union Hmong Kitchen also plans to expand to a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“Food is the ultimate equalizer,” Vang said. “It makes us all the same. It doesn’t matter how poor you are, what political party you belong to, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, we as humans, as a people, we need to eat. And when it comes to food, that makes us all equal.”