playing with fire: Backstreet Academy's Hmong vegetarian cooking class

Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.
— Anthony Bourdain

It’s no secret to those who are longtime readers of this blog that I love myself a cooking class. I think it allows me to pretend I’m a little like Anthony Bourdain; bonding with locals over traditional meals in real settings. I also just really like food, so participating in a course where I make food and then eat it all is kind of an ideal situation if you get me. So, when I was graciously asked by Backstreet Academy to attend their Hmong cooking course, catered to vegetarians in a nearby village, I was like…uh yeah yes please where do I sign up?!


KEEP READING TO GET THE SCOOP ON HMONG VEGETARIAN COOKING CLASSES WITH BACKSTREET ACADEMY


backstreet academy cooking class
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WHO ARE THE HMONG

Before we dive into the delicious details of the cooking class, you’re probably Googling “Hmong” right now. I’ll save you the extra tab on Wikipedia.

Hmong is one of 49 ethnic minorities, known broadly as the Hill Tribe people, that make up Laos. Traditionally, they live in the Northern part of the country and are known for making homes in high mountainous regions. Hmong people have historically been persecuted for their religion, thus they have ended up migrated around Southeast and East Asia. Their native language is Hmong, which is said to be similar-ish to Mandarin Chinese, though, after listening to both, they sound incredibly different to my untrained ears.

husking rice

husking rice

HMONG FOOD CULTURE + COOKING

Hmong cuisine itself is hard to pinpoint. A majority of the food Hmong people eat isn’t unique to Hmong communities. It’s actually a blend of the many dishes from places where Hmong people have migrated. While Hmong cuisine is hard to identify, the components of the meals are pretty standard across the region. The staple of the meal is rice, which is served with big portions of produce {usually boiled or grilled} and a small portion of meat, if any at all.

One of the main differences between Hmong and Lao food is “the rice factor”. Hmong people are known for opting to eat steamed, white rice over the ever-popular sticky rice. This is what we had at our cooking course to accompany all the yummy vegetarian dishes we made.

Cooking with fire is the main method of cooking in Laos, especially in rural areas. This lends itself to creating simple, delicious recipes with minimal ingredients.

Food is eaten in a communal setting, where people sit around a table and share lots of little dishes. Traditionally, women cook and men eat first. Of course, us ladies didn’t wait for the men to eat first after doing all the hard work during the cooking course. We all ate happily together— Keo, Souvanh, Luke, Mr. Huelee, and myself.

de-stemming leaves we would add water to then strain and use the juices in our bamboo shoot soup

de-stemming leaves we would add water to then strain and use the juices in our bamboo shoot soup

Souvan trying to hide a smile as I attempt to soften peanuts for a dish

Souvan trying to hide a smile as I attempt to soften peanuts for a dish

I was given full permission to use this photo of their daughter by Mr. Huelee and Souvan

I was given full permission to use this photo of their daughter by Mr. Huelee and Souvan

LEARNING FROM LOCALS

What I love most about every Backstreet Academy tour I take is that I’m learning straight from locals. I learned how to make Hmong dishes from Souvanh, a Hmong woman living in a Hmong village. It doesn’t get more authentically Hmong than that.

Souvanh was 8-months pregnant but, as it turns out, she was much more capable than me. She squatted lower than me, hit the mortar harder than me, and used giant knives to cut the barbed rattan without fear of hacking off a finger. I found myself trying desperately to impress her, but my lack of domestication made her giggle. It’s obvious that if I were to be taken to a Hmong village, I would be the weak link in a chain of gracious, strong women cooking for the others.

Not only did I receive great instruction from Souvanh, but we were supervised by her three-year-old daughter who is easily won over by cucumber and was fascinated by my lack of kitchen coordination.

Me and Luke cutting bamboo shoots for a soup

Me and Luke cutting bamboo shoots for a soup

THE NITTY-GRITTY: TOUR DETAILS

We were picked up from our guesthouse at 9 a.m. by an electric tuk-tuk and our local guide for the day, Keo. Keo is Hmong and thus his native language is Hmong. However, he also speaks Lao, and English. He explained to us that we would be attending cooking class in a Hmong village a short drive away but that the tuk-tuk would be unable to make the rocky, steep climb, so we’d have to walk for about 3-minutes.

When we arrived, we all introduced ourselves and Keo began to explain the ingredients on the table, and translating for Souvanh. Straight away, we got stuck in cleaning rice and vegetables, chopping bamboo shoot, and grilling rattan and eggplant on the fire. Our cooking class, from pick up to drop off lasted 3.5 hours. This included plenty of time to eat all the food we made. There was no feeling of being rushed at all.

After we said our good-byes, we walked back down the hill to our electric tuk-tuk. The driver and Keo escorted us back to our guesthouse around 12:30 PM and I was a very full, very content girl for the rest of the afternoon.

bamboo shoots boil over the fire

bamboo shoots boil over the fire

chopping spring onion and corriander for a tomato dip

chopping spring onion and corriander for a tomato dip

DISHING IT UP: WHAT WE COOKED

We cooked up three dips, two mains, and cooked a heaping portion of rice. Mr. Huelee, Souvanh’s husband, surprised us with a cucumber from the village since it is currently cucumber season here in Laos, and brought us ice cold water to wash all our food creations down.

We picked out which dishes we wanted to make with Backstreet Academy a day prior so that Souvanh had time to go to the morning market and buy fresh produce.

Our two main dishes of choice were bamboo shoot soup and a mystery vegetable dish made with peanuts and a green, leafy plant we boiled but no one knew the translation for.

My favourite dishes of the meal were the dips. We decided to make eggplant dip, rattan dip, and tomato dip. We added a lot of salt and chili, per my tastebuds. Boy, oh, boy, have I missed Lao chilis! Eggplants grilled on a fire then mashed with salt and chili is a standard classic that can be found at most Lao restaurants, but having worked hard to make it ourselves, it tasted so much better than what you can buy. Our rattan and tomato dips were both delicious as well, though I may have added a few too many chilis in the rattan dip for everyone else’s liking…more for me!

the fruits of our labor

the fruits of our labor

BACKSTREET BOOKING

Our cooking efforts culminated in a giant Hmong feast fit for vegetarians and vegans! I have such newfound respect for the Hmong village women who make food over a fire every day for their families. The process took us a few hours for one meal, but IT. WAS. GLORIOUS. Imagine doing this two to three times each day, all while taking care of the children?! Hmong women are my heroes for being able to take such simple ingredients and turn them into a full-fledged dining experience.

You can book your unique local experience with Backstreet Academy using this link.


Disclaimer: I was a guest of Backstreet Academy as an Ambassador, but all my opinions are my own and my experience is expressed authentically. This post contains affiliate links, which means when you make a booking I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.


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