Head to Hmong International New Year and you’ll find foods like spicy papaya salad, raw sugar cane and pompano fish with purple sticky rice.
Despite a Hmong population topping 30,000, Fresno doesn’t have many Hmong restaurants. That means Hmong International New Year – the nation’s largest Hmong New Year festival, which runs through Sunday at the Fresno Fairgrounds – is the best time to try the Southeast Asian cuisine.
Armed with suggestions from a Hmong colleague, we set out to sample some of the most popular dishes.
What we ate: Pompano fish with purple sticky rice Hmong sausage with purple sticky rice Sugar cane and sugar cane juice Papaya salad Curry noodles, meatballs, egg rolls, nab vam tapioca drink Garlic Parmesan potato swirl
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At Hmong International New Year, which attracts more than 30,000 people each year, more than 500 booths include vendors selling food and drinks, Hmong clothes and natural medicines. Most vendors come from out of town. Walking through the crowds to different food booths, you’re surrounded by the smells of grilled meats, lemongrass and fish sauce.
Our first stop was at Family B.B.Q. for some pompano fish and purple sticky rice. The fish is seasoned with cilantro, onion, lemongrass and other spices, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed whole. It comes with a side of purple sticky rice, a kind of rice that looks black and turns lavender to deep purple when cooked.
The fish tastes heavily of lemongrass. Va Ger Vue, a Hmong New Year gate worker on his lunch break, demonstrated how to eat the dish without utensils. He grabbed a piece of fish, removed the bone, peeled off a small amount of sticky rice and popped the bite into his mouth. Vue said pompano fish is his favorite meal at Hmong New Year.
At Chou’s Food Express, lead cook Ying Her said his family’s signature Hmong pork sausage is about 60 percent meat and 40 percent fat. They keep the seasoning simple: salt, ginger and green onion. He said elders don’t seek out complex flavors because, back in Laos, they lived in the hills and didn’t have access to many spices.
Her started cooking with his dad around age 10. He remembers his dad getting creative with both ramen noodles and barbecue. Her was born in Fresno but now lives in Sacramento, where he works as the head chef at a casino. His dad runs two businesses, so he passed the torch to his son to lead their Hmong New Year grill pits.
The most traditional New Year dishes – fish, pork rib, chicken or sausage – come with a side of sticky purple rice instead of white rice. Her said that’s because purple rice is traditionally harvested at this time of year. Again, it’s eaten utensil-free. “Back in mainland, it’s a hands-on kind of thing, so you eat it like a kid,” he said with a laugh.
In need of a beverage, we found a small sugar cane juice booth near the Home Arts Building. The freshly pressed juice is chilled over ice and tastes a bit like sweet tea but has a lighter, caramel color. You can also buy pieces of raw sugar cane to suck on and spit the pulp out (very addicting).
Fresno State student Pakou Yang, 20, pushed pieces of whole sugar cane through the juicing machine. Brown stalks came out the other end and landed in a garbage bin.
Yang helps her mother run their 2-acre farm, growing cilantro, onions and a half-acre of sugar cane. She said the drought this year made the cane less juicy than usual. Still, they have little competition at the New Year festival – she knows of only one other sugar cane booth.
If you’re not ready to take on traditional Hmong dishes, there’s plenty of deep-fried festival fare, but with a twist. Think deep-fried bananas, yams and swirl-cut potatoes on a stick. Other tasty treats include spicy pickles, fried egg rolls and meatballs. Several booths serve boba (bubble tea) and some have nab vam, a tricolor milky tapioca drink.
Some foods served at the festival are Hmong takes on dishes that are popular throughout Southeast Asia, like pho or curried noodle soup. Another of those is papaya salad.
From behind a mesh screen, at Ty Lucky BBQ, I watched a woman mash dried chili pepper flakes with sugar in a large mortar and pestle. She added shredded green papaya, then tamarind juice, fish sauce, halved cherry tomatoes, lemon and peanuts. She topped the mixture with shredded cabbage. The flavors come in waves. First is the sweet of the tamarind, then the sour of the fish sauce and green papaya, and finally the heat of the chili flakes.
It’s a lot of flavor all at once.
HMONG INTERNATIONAL NEW YEAR
When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Sunday
Where: Fresno Fairgrounds
Cost: $4 for general admission; free for children 6 and younger, people 65 and older, guests in wheelchairs, those with military and government ID, and Fresno County employees. Bring cash to buy food.