What exactly is Minnesota cuisine?
A new series from Twin Cities Public Television is exploring that question. Spoiler alert: In the first six-episode season, now streaming online, hot dish doesn’t make a single appearance.
“Relish,” a web-only series with new episodes each Wednesday, examines the many diverse cultures that call Minnesota home. To do that, chef and host Yia Vang heads into the home kitchens of other local chefs, who demonstrate the makings of their favorite, heritage-rich dishes.
Vang fills Hmong-style steamed buns alongside his mother, Pang. José Alarcon makes tortillas from the heirloom maize he uses at his Minneapolis restaurants Popol Vuh and Centro. Ann Ahmed, chef and owner of Lat14 and Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine, tosses sticky rice in a bamboo basket. Brian Yazzie explains the origins of the Native dish Three Sisters. Chef Lachelle Cunningham re-imagines soul food by making a vegan banana pudding. And Jamal Hashi, who introduced Minnesotans to camel-on-a-stick at the State Fair, toasts and grinds spices into a Somali masala.
“We have just such a wealth of richness in our food cultures and different communities in Minnesota, and it’s been wonderful to celebrate the different aspects of that,” said Brittany Shrimpton, who co-created the series with Amy Melin. “We’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg, but there are so many more food traditions we can explore.”
To find their stars, Melin and Shrimpton met with food writers, chefs and others in the local food scene to come up with a wish list. While the first season largely focused on professional chefs, the producers hope to feature more home cooks — like Vang’s mother — in the future.
At Sociable Cider Werks, where Vang’s Union Hmong Kitchen is in residency from a trailer in the parking lot, Vang has already been sharing his family’s story through his cooking. Vang’s family, who were Hmong refugees from Laos, came to the United States in the late 1980s by way of a Thai refugee camp.
“The sole purpose of [food], the epicenter of it, is I want you to understand my mom and dad’s legacy,” Vang said at a recent launch party for the show. “The food we make, the things we make, it’s only because they’re Hmong parents and they taught us how to do it.”
Vang’s curiosity and easygoing knack for storytelling is well suited to video. He appeared with his father last spring on CNN’s “United Shades of America.”
On “Relish,” he accompanies his fellow chefs into their kitchens, helps them chop and slice, and sits down at the table to eat the resulting meal. At times, he becomes “giddy,” he said, when he learns something new about food, or when he finds something in common with a culinarian from a completely different background.
“I just love dorking out on that stuff,” Vang said.
The power of the series comes through during frank conversations about cultures — where they diverge and where they intersect.
During an episode that focuses on pre-colonial indigenous foods, Vang and Yazzie bond while cooking squash on a fire in an outdoor pit.
Vang remarks that there are “bougie” restaurants that use live-fire cooking, even though Hmong cooks have been doing it for generations.
“Same thing with North American indigenous chefs and cooks,” Yazzie replies. “Right now, we’re known as a trend or a fad, but it’s just that we’ve always been here. We’re just overlooked.”
Later, they share a bowl of Three Sisters — indigenous corn, squash and beans — cooked with amaranth greens. Those leaves remind Yang of the Hmong mustard greens he grew up eating.
“To me,” Yazzie says, “this is just tasting the landscape.”
Melin hopes moments like those “lift the veil on some cultures people might not know about and [make them] more accessible.”
“Food is really universal, and if you can teach somebody about a culture through an ingredient or a food that probably is on your table as well, maybe it’ll make some small little dent in our world and help us understand each other a little better,” she said.
Each episode of “Relish” is only 4 to 6 minutes long, and is accompanied by an article and a recipe at TPTOriginals.org.
Lefse and lutefisk didn’t make it into the first season, but the producers hope to include foods with Scandinavian roots in a second season, which is planned for early next year.
“We didn’t intentionally stay away from it, but it would have been low-hanging fruit,” said Melin. “We wanted the body of work to be balanced and diverse.”
That objective for the series spoke volumes to Yang when it came to signing on to the project.
“I think sometimes when you come to a place where it’s predominantly white and you’re a minority, a person of color, a lot of times [your] food gets labeled as off the beaten path,” he said.
“With this series, with Amy and Brittany taking a chance on us, to me it’s saying, ‘Hey, you’re one of us. You’re American, but you come from a different background and we want to hear that story.’ ”
“It’s inclusivity,” Vang continued. “You’re part of the tapestry of Minnesota.”