“Whatever I eat, I have to have a little chile with it,” the Hmong farmer’s son told me last Saturday at my local farmer’s market. “Especially with grilled meat, a little chile is so nice.” His sisters standing nearby all nodded in agreement.
I was picking through their pile of hot Thai chiles looking for nice red ones when we started the conversation. Summer is the peak season for Southeast Asian produce and Hmong farmers from California’s Central Valley flush our markets with super fresh leafy greens, all kinds of eggplant, several types of basil, lemongrass, and lots of chiles. I grow my own chiles but they aren’t ripe yet so I lay in a supply grown by the Hmong farmers. (Chiles freeze well so go crazy!)
“What do you do with the chiles?” I asked, thinking of a little something I could serve with our July 4 surf-and-turf grilled dinner. He obliged by describing this recipe, which is essentially like Hmong kua txob tuav xyaw dos (chile mashed with scallion). I know a tad about Hmong cooking this because I researched and wrote a 2007 Saveur article on Hmong farmers and Hmong home cooking. Don’t even try to figure out how to pronounce the Hmong name! Find a Hmong-speaking person to ask.
This is a relish – often described as a salsa by Hmong Americans – and you can serve it along with grilled pork, beef, chicken, shrimp, etc. I particularly like it with Vietnamese grilled lemongrass pork (thit heo nuong xa). If you like, dip a little sticky rice into this fiery masth, or stir it into food. You can just pound the chiles, salt, scallion and cilantro together if you don’t have tomato around. It’s quick and simple everyday Hmong condiment that’s dynamite. Feel free to vary the amount of chiles according to your tolerance for heat.
Makes about 1 cup
18 small or 9 medium Thai chiles, stemmed and chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons fish sauce
1/2 cup chopped scallion, green part only
1/2 lightly packed cup chopped cilantro
1 cup quartered ripe cherry tomato
1. Put the chiles, salt, and fish sauce into a mortar. With a circular motion of the pestle, crush the ingredients against the sides of the mortar into a rough mixture.
2. Add the scallion and cilantro, and switch to an up and down pounding motion with the pestle to combine the flavors well and reduce the mixture to a damp, rough mixture. Add the cherry tomatoes and lightly pound to combine. Taste and add lime juice as needed for a tart bite. Transfer to a small dish and serve.