A few weeks back, while my stomach still suffered from the pasty and other Midwestern delights, I went hunting for familiar food. Asian food. Chili and rice, spicy and nice. The stuff that makes my gut feel at home.
I went straight to 35th and National, a nifty little block of Milwaukee where the flavors of Mexico and Laos mingle, door to door. Actually, I was looking for the Vientiane Noodle Shop, which came highly recommended by friends with good noses for good Asian eats. But by twist of karma, I ended up across the street at the Noodle House (see listing here), where I stumbled upon a community of Hmong refugees who had settled in Milwaukee via the refugee camps in northern Thailand. (Plus I found just the right pho to warm my belly and stop its gurgling.)
First, I ordered fresh springrolls, which turned out to be the biggest I’d ever seen:
Then I ordered the pho.
“Have you ever eaten this kind of soup before?” the pleasant young waitress asked me.
I told her I had many, many times.
“Oh, OK. I always have to ask because with the herb set, people don’t know what to do.”
As with any true bowl of pho, it came with a heaping plate of fresh herbs and lime. I plopped basil and cilantro into the broth, squeezed a bit of lime, added a drizzle of fish sauce and a dollop of chili, and the dish was set. Thus began a conversation with the waitress and a couple of female customers behind me.
They are among Milwaukee’s estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Hmong, many of whom fled the Lao government, which continues to persecute the Hmong for their involvement in the Vietnam War (or “the American War,” as it is frequently called in Southeast Asia). Our waitress said she had recollections of the refugee camp in northern Thailand where she lived before moving to the US. But she was too young to remember precisely where the camp was, or the specific events that had led to her being there. She was eager to find a Wisconsinite who knew something about her homeland.
We had a good, long discussion of the continuing project Jerry and I have to document the unexploded ordnance (UXO) remaining in Laos since the US bombing campaign in the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, ironically, many Hmong who sided with the Americans and fought against the Lao government continue to die today as they work in their fields and hit bombs dropped by the US 40 years ago.
Read more about the Hmong in America here.
Read more about the Hmong in Milwaukee here.
Read a story about a Hmong girl living in Vietnam.