Mystery House

Corn Tapioca Pudding

Anybody out there know anything about Hmong cooking?  My guess is that the answer is going to be a big, loud, “No!” unless, of course, you happen to be Hmong.  It’s not a cuisine that’s well-known in the U.S., even though there are lots of Hmong people living here.  Hmong culture doesn’t seem inclined towards opening restaurants, and they’ve always had an oral tradition with respect to recipes.  They cook by taste rather than by exact measurements, and I’ve heard that some traditional Hmong cooks can be secretive about their methods.  In other words, ain’t nothin’ written down.

Until now.  Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang have written a book called Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America.  It’s a nicely produced book, the sort of cookbook that you read as much for the cultural insights as for the recipes.  I can’t imagine how much research went into this, how many hours watching people cook and translating what they did into teaspoons and tablespoons.

Hmong cooking makes use of ingredients that are familiar to other Asian cuisines:  fish sauce, coconut milk, daikon, oyster sauce.  But there are also things in the Hmong pantry that I’ve never heard of:  stem lettuce, fuzzy melon, young pre-furniture rattan, beefsteak plant, and eggs with partially formed baby chickens in them.  That last one is a bit out there for me.  (Okay, more than a bit.  Won’t be making that.)

I decided to start with a recipe that used familiar ingredients, but was entirely different from anything I’d made before, and I found the perfect thing in the dessert section of the book:  tapioca pudding…with sweet corn.  Corn, the book informs me, is often used in Hmong desserts.

Corn Tapioca 1

Ironically, the best corn we had this year came not from a stand at the farmer’s market, but from the grocery store.  (It was from a local farm, but still.  The ambiance just isn’t the same.)  Instead of my usual store, the business of the day took me to a smaller store which tends to be oddly stocked.  It carries a good selection of exotic mushrooms, but just try to get something like tapioca…and try I did.  There was no regular old pearl tapioca, merely a few lonely (and nearly hidden) boxes of instant.  I didn’t have time for a second store that day, much less a trip to one of my favorite Asian groceries across town for some genuine Asian tapioca (of which there are many very cool varieties, including some in bright colors).  Instant would have to do.

Well, I learned that instant isn’t simply “small,” as the recipe calls for.  It’s practically dust.  No way was the technique in the recipe — which involves a great deal of boiling and draining and rinsing and boiling again — going to work with this stuff.  So I improvised.  And since Hmong cooking is so deeply based on improvising, I figured I couldn’t go too far wrong.

I cooked a cup of tapioca dust in a small amount of water, for just a minute.  Then added a can of coconut milk, sugar, a little salt, and cooked it a bit more.  Then I added the corn kernels, cut from two cobs.

Corn Tapioca 2

When the corn was done and the pudding was nice and thick, I chilled it in the fridge until time for dessert.

Corn Tapioca 3

Hmong recipes don’t seem to have poetic names, as Chinese or Japanese recipes do, but I think this deserves a name like Tapioca with Golden Gems, or something.  It’s really quite nice, a comfort food sort of dessert that’s both unusual and familiar at the same time.  The coconut milk gives it a good flavor, and the corn contributes a pleasing crunch.  We liked it (and I thought the leftovers made a great breakfast).  Next time, I’ll be sure to get some proper tapioca, because I think that will make it even better — texture is an important element of this dish.

Cooking From the Heart presents Hmong cooking as a tradition of earthy, simple food with big flavors, and if you’re the slightest bit curious about this cuisine, it’s a must-have.  I’ve got my eye on two more recipes that are crying out for testing:  chicken roasted in coconut milk, and fried pickled vegetables with bacon — now, doesn’t that sound like somebody should put it on a stick and sell it at the Minnesota State Fair?  There are plenty of adventures to be had here, and I’m looking forward to it!


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  1. * bezzie says:

    Mmm…that looks good!!

    Actually there’s a big Hmong community in Anchorage. They like it there b/c it’s honestly not so far from home and the climate is similar.

    I like that. When we lived in MI, in Dearborn has like the highest population of Iraqis in the US. BRRRRR! That’s a big climactic change! I never understood it.

    Posted 8 years, 10 months ago
  2. * Guinifer says:

    Not a tapioca fan, but I do love corn.

    Posted 8 years, 10 months ago
  3. * Lisa Peet says:

    No Hmong community in NYC to speak of either, which is funny because you’d think we’d have a bit of everything here. That does look tasty, though I’m not huge on the tapioca myself.

    Posted 8 years, 10 months ago
  4. * setembrina says:

    Once again, you cook and you not share.
    what up with that?

    I do believe I am going to HAVE to copy you and get my grubby little hands on that book.

    Posted 8 years, 10 months ago

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