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James Beard–nominated chef shares how his culture influenced cuisine based on invasive species: 'Our people have been doing that in the mountains for thousands of years'

"Food was a big part of our family, but not in the way of this romanticized view of food."

"Food was a big part of our family, but not in the way of this romanticized view of food."

Photo Credit: iStock

Invasive species, whether it's animals or plants, can wreak havoc on an established ecosystem. 

Invasive animals can upset the predator-prey balance, disrupt habitats, or overeat flora that is vital for pollinators. Meanwhile, invasive plants can crowd out native species and limit access to nutrients, water, space, and sunlight. 

Dealing with either is a challenge, and creative solutions for controlling them are popping up all over the world. People of the Hmong culture have been hunting invasive animals for generations, and chef Yia Vang has been demonstrating how they can be turned into delicious meals on his Outdoor Channel TV series, Feral.

The Hmong people traditionally settled in various places in Southeast and East Asia. After the Vietnam War broke out, many Hmong sought refuge in other countries, with some heading to the United States. 

Vang was raised in Wisconsin, and his Hmong heritage is still an intrinsic part of his life. His parents' stories and teachings ensured the culture was instilled in him. Food, in particular, provides a notable window into the nomadic lifestyle.

"Food was a big part of our family, but not in the way of this romanticized view of food," Vang told Foodbeast. "In our family, food was just a part of survival, especially coming from where we come from as refugees. It wasn't until later in my adult years that I really realized the story behind all of the foods that my parents made for us."

Vang, who was nominated for the James Beard prize and owns the Union Hmong Kitchen in Minneapolis, hunts and cooks invasive and feral animals on his Feral show, including pythons, iguanas, and wild pigs. 

After revealing to his father that he was hunting these animals, Vang was told: "Are you kidding me? Our people have been doing that in the mountains for thousands of years." 

When talking about invasive iguanas specifically, Vang's dad said he would cook them with lemongrass, garlic, and ginger.

"What was really special to me in that moment…my father gave me a dish and recipe that he cooked as a boy, and I was able to connect with him," Vang said.

Capturing invasive species and using them in meals is not exclusive to the Hmong culture, though. In New England, chef Jeremy Sewall is catching invasive green crabs — which have been eating native creatures and are responsible for coastal erosion — and using them in his menu at his Row 34 restaurants.

Pythons are also on Vang's list of targets, and Florida has a notable python predicament. That's why the state introduced the Florida Python Challenge, in which hunters are awarded cash prizes for capturing snakes. 

For Vang, controlling the spread of invasive species is not the sole goal. He is driven by the desire to keep the Hmong culture alive and share it with others.

"I believe the philosophy is that the living world around us can be used to make food that would draw us together, that nourishes our soul, and brings our community together," he told Foodbeast

"No matter where Hmong people are — around the world, around the country, wherever — we will always find a way to grow our own food, [and] harvest our own food, using whatever's around us to create meals, and to create a platform where we can grow our community."

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