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Hook & Barrel
A Lifestyle Magazine for Modern Outdoorsmen

Chef Yia Vang explains how hunting and fishing keep him tethered to his Hmong traditions and help him make connections across cultures.

When Minneapolis chef Yia Vang first arrived at college, he was excited to find a group of friends who, like him, grew up fishing. He was, however, shocked to learn that they filleted the fish before eating them.

“What do you with the rest?” he wondered, remembering how his mother prepared the fish whole at home. Raised by Hmong immigrants in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Vang and his six siblings caught crappies, sunnies, and panfish with his dad. His mom would clean and score them, dab on a little salt and tapioca flour, then serve them up with hot sauce and sticky rice, everyone picking at the crispy bits.

Chef Yia Vang Leans Into The Shared

Later, he learned that rather than shooting squirrels or rabbits for dinner, his friends had pet bunnies. But rather than focus on the differences, Vang learned to lean into the shared experiences, to the places that he could connect. “I firmly believe that food is a universal language,” he says. Today, the chef and owner of Union Hmong Kitchen in Minneapolis, Minnesota, demonstrates exactly that through a menu filled with Hmong sausage and purple sticky rice.

“If you want to build a successful restaurant, you build it around beer, burgers, and pizza,” he laughs. While he is proving his own theory wrong, tempting tens of thousands of people at the Minnesota State Fair to wait in long lines for his galabao—stuffed buns—his choice to cook Hmong food comes from a desire to invite people to his table, to offer a way for them to understand his food and his people.

A Great Food Culture: The Hmong

chef yia vang

Growing up, Vang was often asked if he was Korean, Japanese, or Chinese, then had to explain what it meant that he was Hmong. The Hmong—the ‘h’ is almost silent, so it’s pronounced like ‘among,’ without the ‘a’—are a nomadic Indigenous people of Southeast Asia, distinct from the majority of people of the nations they live in, such as Vietnam, China, and Laos.

“We come from the mountains, we come from the jungles. When our people were told they couldn’t live in the lowlands, that they were less than, they found a way,” he says. “Because our people never quit.” Vang embodies that final part: he currently runs two locations of Union Hmong Kitchen, hosts a podcast called Hmonglish and a television show on the Outdoors Channel, Feral, and is slated to open another restaurant, Vinal.

Vang hopes that his nieces and nephews and that generation never have to explain who they are to strangers, and he sees food as the ideal catalyst for that evolution. “I firmly believe that every dish has a narrative, and if you follow that dish long enough and close enough, you get to the people behind the food,” he says. “First you want something delicious, then you learn about the family it comes from, the mother it comes from, and then it’s no longer just a dish or food, it’s actually connected to a person.”

A Cuisine Like No Other

Hmong cuisine, like the ginger-lemongrass chicken and tamarind-glazed spareribs Vang serves in his restaurant, relies on the principle of balance, an ethos he brings to all parts of his life, especially as an outdoorsman. “Fishing and hunting, all that stuff, is an exploration of what’s bigger than us,” he says. “Our culture is based on the same ideology as conservation; you only use what you need, so you can have more for the next generation.”

As a kid, he learned about what it means to be Hmong watching his parents: the way they left the best parts of the meat or fish for their kids, the way they didn’t harvest from parts of the garden and instead left the produce to die and seed next years food. “How you treat the earth and what you give here, the earth gives back to you,” Vang observes.

The same idea of balance drives Feral, which just completed its second season. “What we see in Feral is when the earth is unbalanced,” he says. “One animal is taking over a lake, river, or land.” So, while the show is, on the surface, about a “bunch of dudes going out and having a good time,” he also sees it as a reflection of Hmong principles. “Our people have been doing this for thousands of years in the mountains of Laos.”

‘Feral’ Is A Show About The Earth

chef yia vang

On the first season of the show, Vang hunts invasive species including wild hogs in Florida, axis deer in Texas, and Chinese mystery snails in Wisconsin, always bringing his Hmong culture and the ethos he learned from his parents to the experience. Each episode shows him hunting a new animal with a local guide, then both he and the guide prepare a dish using the featured prey, with Vang using the flavors of his heritage. “There’s just different worlds, but it connects us, how we prep the food,” he says, cooking with them, having dinner with them. “Sometimes I learn something new from them, sometimes they learn something new from me.”

He hasn’t cooked many of the animals they encounter on the show, but it doesn’t slow him down in the kitchen, where he quickly figures out that iguana is not so different from rabbit, just like squirrel is basically dark-meat chicken. Python reminded him of squid or octopus. But as unphased as he is by the food, he learned so much from the people and the places he visited in making Feral. “There’s something about being in a mountain where you just see how big the mountain is, and are like, ‘Man, I’m kind of small,’” he says. “It makes you realize there’s a bigger world going on out here than you.”

Common Ground Is Easy To Find

That outlook helps Vang find common ground with people who come from very different backgrounds. Noodling for catfish in Oklahoma, Vang knows that the audience loves watching him wade into water darker than chocolate milk and blindly shoving his hands into hidden holes filled with who even knows what. But what he takes away from spending time with his guide, Nate, and his sons, hits deeper: he saw how harvesting, breaking down, and cooking the fish was their way of bonding as a family. It reminded Vang of looking forward to his own childhood fishing trips. “I couldn’t wait to get out there with Dad,” he says.

Hunting green iguanas in South Florida drew the connection even more directly for Vang. When he told his dad he planned to catch the big lizards, Vang’s dad told him that he used to hunt for the very same in the mountains of Laos, and explained the technique he used to cook them. Nhia Lor Vang had been handed a gun at the age of 12 and trained in guerilla warfare to fight for U.S. interests during the Vietnam War. “Dad didn’t have much of a childhood,” says Vang. His dad didn’t play tee-ball or pass down an old baseball mitt; he spent many years in a refugee camp. But hunting the same creatures and charring the iguana, roasting it with lemongrass and ginger, just like his dad had, brought Vang the kind of connection he always hoped for.

“All across the country, the people that are watching the show, they get to partake in that,” Vang marvels. “That’s what I call a legacy.”

Chef Vang’s Legacy? Food

chef yia vang

Vang recently started considering his own legacy, too. When a kid came up to him for a photo after he spoke at his alma mater, the boy’s mother told him how happy she was that he had Hmong role models to look up to. “I never thought about it before,” Vang says; he was always just moving forward, looking one step ahead. But now, he sees the bigger picture.
Often, Vang is the first Hmong person that someone has interacted with, and he finds the best way to show them who he is comes through cooking. “Our cultural DNA is intricately woven into the Hmong food we eat,” he says. “It’s who we are, it’s part of our story.”

Vang didn’t think that he and Dusty Crum, the Florida hunter known as “Wildman,” shared many beliefs. But after they hunted a Burmese python and Vang cooked it up into laab, a Hmong salad, they found a place to connect. “I’ve never seen so many green things on one plate,” Crum told Vang as he tried a lettuce wrap. “You guys are the Hill Tribe, and I’m just a hillbilly, but look at us together,” he joked.

Commonality Is Key

“We were just two brothers, looking for snakes,” Vang says. “Wanting to have fun and grill up python together.” Vang makes it clear that his job isn’t to change anybody’s mind, just to share his story, meet people, and eat well. But just by being out in the world, Vang makes a statement, and by doing it with pride in his Hmong heritage and with plenty of lemongrass and ginger, he does it loudly and deliciously.

“Hunting, fishing, and gathering are not just for a certain demographic here in America,” he says. “It’s for everyone, it’s a part of human nature. We just have to remember that we have this really amazing commonality.”

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