Hmong in SE Asia map
Hmong is pronounced with the leading "h" silent and not as some say "her-mong". Hmong traditional food and cuisine is basic with some special foods for various festivals and spiritual proscriptions. Most of their everyday food reflects the cuisine of the nation that they live in: China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. The traditional roots of the Hmong are Chinese and their indigenous foods are most definitely of a Chinese peasant style. There is a very broad selection of vegetables seen in well established villages and the Hmong are well known for their food gardens and produce. Steamed rice is their staple rather than sticky rice.

The Hmong have their own language which has an extensive vocabulary with a polytonic, monosyllabic style. The word hmong in their RPA romanised language is spelt "hmoob" and pronounced "hmong" before the missionaries romanised the language there was no standard written language but there were other attempts at defining a written language for the Hmong in China before this time. Interestingly no word ends with a "hard consonant" which enabled the group to encode the tones with the unused hard consonant added to the Romanised word at the end. Their vocab for food items is extremely extensive with very few ambiguities as happens with many SE Asian food vocabularies. There doesn't appear to be a gentrified cuisine buried within the food lists and neither is there evidence of a ruling class of Hmong although there are a number of sub-tribes within the group. These sub-groups have quite varied cultural differences but language and spirituality seem to be the bond. Interestingly the Hmong have their own word for "king" which doesn't resemble any other Chinese dialect for this noun. The question is why? Did they at some stage have a kingdom? If so there is no folklore that remembers. Were they aspiring to have their own nation and lands and thus a King to rule over them? Who knows but many linguists and researchers are on the trail so hopefully many of these questions will be answered definitively or at least with evidence behind an interpretation.

The Hmong may have have started a long journey from the Yellow River heading south (?). It also seems that during this period the Hmong were persecuted by land owners and ethnic groups. They may have decided to hot foot it to very high and generally inhospitable terrain, the rugged mountains of Yunnan where they felt safe again. Very few would bother to chase them in this terrain. Of course society modernised and evolved. There were wars, famines, epidemics and cultural revolutions. The Hmong it seems were not interested in a Cultural Revolution and thus were again the targets of oppression and forceful driving. They crossed the southern Chinese national border then probably to Vietnam and some into or onto Laos or maybe to Vietnam and Laos through different entries from the 18th century on. They had the protection in these countries of high rugged and isolated mountains, an environment that they were familiar with and could survive where many could not. As time moved on these two countries also changed with their own political and social revolutions so the basis had not changed and neither had the Hmong decided that they would want to be a part of a larger society. They had failed in this endeavour many times before so their own analysis of survival was isolation and independence. Of course the governmental rulers of these countries did not accept this and demanded that they integrate as part of a society with some autonomy. Some accepted this but others did not. There were alliances made with the losing side and a subsequent cultural cleanse with many Hmong dying at that time. For the first time in their history their new borders were overseas. Countries like France, USA, west African countries and Australia took in many Hmong refugees in the 1970's. This was the biggest cultural shock of their history for most of them. Quickly they began to learn the ways of their adopted countries and although the community was still very strong, there was a sense of trust emerging, at least a trust of not being physically threatened as a group. The Hmong have thrived in this environment with a phenomenal realisation of professional careers including politics. This journey however wasn't without it's own pain.

For the first time many families became dysfunctional, drug use by the youth became noticeable along with anti family and anti-social behaviour. Many blame the latch key phenomena where the parents were working odd hour shifts that probably didn't coincide with their children's home times. The children were essentially unsupervised and developed some behaviour familiar to many people of other groups in the same situation. The Hmong are working through this in their second and third generation in their new countries and they will be successful.

Back in Laos and Vietnam the problems are still great with poverty being the greatest. With poverty there is no option of choice and no ability to change their lives. For some this is a depression and hopelessness is apparent. Others have moved into some level of wealth and the choices that open to them have allowed them to change and improve their lifestyle.

In the USA the Hmong have discovered a captive audience. The interest in organic produce and novel vegetables has allowed the Hmong to re-establish their practice of horticulture. It's an avid interest and necessity in Laos I found, so whenever I planned to visit a Hmong community I always took packets and tins of viable vegetable seeds and despite genuine advice to buy cabbage, zucchini and tomato, which I did but nearly always wiped the market stalls out of these lines, so rather than look mean fisted I just grabbed as diverse an assortment as possible. The women particularly were very responsive, invariably eyeing the least likely vegetable seeds and I almost had the feeling that they were on their way to the gardens as soon as the seed was offered to them. I daresay if I had been astute enough I could have predicted the harvest dates for the produce and headed into the nearest market coinciding with the harvest, I would bet that these vegetables would be on sale at that time! back to the US. With the big interest in the grown products it was a small step to become interested in the food of these people and as happens this revitalised a cuisine. The Hmong food preparers were stimulated into developing their cuisine within the new land and with new products and cultural nuances around eating and serving foods. The Hmong have now a viable restaurant industry, a supply of essential traditional food items and an interested clientele and customers.


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