Friday, February 2, 2024

Chargrilled Hmong Black Pig Skewers with Sesame Salt

"I would tell people that Hmong food is not just a type of food. It's not about the product. It's a philosophy.... If you want to know our people you have to know our food. By knowing our food, you will know our story. You'll know where we been and it will show the trajectory of where we're going.  

-- Chef Yia Vang

To the extent people know about the Hmong, that knowledge comes more from political history. The Hmong are an indigenous ethnic group that has lived for centuries as a minority in eastern and southeastern Asia. During the Vietnam War, the United States Central Intelligence Agency recruited and trained the Hmong living in Laos for a "secret war" against the North Vietnamese Army. The Hmong harassed the North Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh trail, safeguarded U.S. radar installations, and rescued downed American pilots. After the war, the communist governments of Vietnam and Laos declared that the Hmong were "traitors." The governments persecuted the Hmong. They arrested the Hmong, who were sent to hard labor camps. They sprayed Hmong villages with chemicals, including napalm.  Nearly ten percent (10%) of the Hmong population was killed and around 100,000 Hmong sought refuge in neighboring Thailand and beyond. 

The culinary history of the Hmong is far less known. Before the Vietnam War, the Hmong had a strong agrarian tradition in the mountains of northern Laos and Vietnam. They grew rice and other produce, as well as raised livestock, such as pigs. The Hmong practiced animism, believing that objects, plants animals, and even places have their own spirit. These beliefs underlie the respect that the Hmong hodl for what they have. It also informs their traditions. 

For example, there is a Hmong tradition -- called Noj Tsiab (nee-al jia) -- that centers around the butchering of a pig. During the last week of December, each family would select a pig from their herd to be butchered. Every family member had a role in the process, being taught by the elders how to prepare the pig, how it would be cut, and how to ensure that all of the pig would be used with nothing going to waste. This knowledge was important, and it was passed on from generation to generation. The end products would be used to prepare a meal for the community for the new year. It enabled everyone to participate in a tradition that gives thanks for what they have been given and to their ancestors for watching over them.

This tradition was lost, at least temporarily, for those Hmong who fled their homes and found themselves in refugee camps. Even after they escaped those camps, making their way to the United States or elsewhere, many of their new lives did not include the raising of pigs, let alone the opportunity to butcher them in accordance with their traditions. 

I knew none of this when I came across a recipe for Chargrilled Hmong Black Pig Skewers with Sesame Salt.  It was in a cookbook called the Food of Vietnam. The author, Luke Nguyen, is a Vietnamese-Australian chef who was part of a television show, Luke Nguyen's Vietnam, that I watched on public television. Every episode fascinated me, both with respect to the people, the surroundings, and, of course, the food. When I got this cookbook, as well as another Vietnamese cookbook, I spent a lot of time paging through the recipes. This one caught my eye because of the reference to the Hmong people. 

Roasted sesame seeds with salt
According to Chef Nguyen, the Hmong raised black pigs in the hills and mountains of Vietnam. The cuts from the necks would be used for this dish. I had access neither to those particular black pigs, or, more generally, to pig necks. Instead, I looked for any cut of pork that would enable me to slice thinly or that came sliced thinly. 

There are two things that I really like about this recipe. The first thing is the marinade. The recipe calls for a combination of scallions, lemongrass, fish sauce, oyster sauce, black pepper, and honey, for a marinade. This particular combination of ingredients imparts a lot of flavor into the meat, which is facilitated by the fact that the meat has been thinly sliced.  The second thing is the ease of preparing this dish. Once the marinade is complete, the rest of this recipe is easy: just thread some pre-soaked skewers, place on a heated grill, flip the skewers a few times and you are done. 

These skewers are very delicious and, given the ease of preparing this dish, I will very likely make this recipe again. The next time will take on a little more meaning now that I have some understanding of the traditions of the people behind the recipe. 


Recipe from Luke Nguyen, The Food of Vietnam, pg. 318

Serves 4-6


  • 300 grams (10.5 ounces) pork neck, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
  • 3 spring onions, sliced then bashed to release the flavor
  • 4 tablespoons finely diced lemongrass, white part only
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon oyster sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil


1. Prepare the marinade. Combine the onions, lemongrass, fish sauce, oyster sauce, sugar honey and black pepper in a mixing bowl and mix well. Add the pork and toss until well coated. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator overnight. 

2. Prepare the skewers. Soak 12 bamboo skewers in water for 30 minutes to prevent scorching. Thread the pork on to the skewers and chargrill on each side for 3 minutes. Mix the sesame seeds with a pinch of sea salt. Serve on the side for dipping the skewers into. 


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