We finally made it to the International Market (AKA the Hmong Market) in St. Paul to check out the offerings in the food court. There are about 8 food vendors selling different kinds of Hmong, Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese favorites. All of these have a common dining area, although there are also a couple of random tables as you enter the eating area. Large, plastic covered, murals (really photographic backdrops) of the Hmong homeland, complete with lush green rice paddies, high mountains and military planes and helicopers Seating is very limited, with potential diners far outnumbering the available chairs, and people just sit down where there is an empty seat. This could make the logistics of eating with a large group ordering from different vendors a bit challenging.
When we were there, the absolute people pleaser was the "One Stop Deli" which specializes in barbequed meats - beef, pork, chicken and duck. Prices are very reasonable. We ordered the beef ribs and the bones were swiftly removed from the 1.5 lbs of succulent meat, by the counter fellow with a very long knife. The ribs came with rice, either the purplish-brown round, sweetish, glutinous rice which they called "sticky rice" or a white, long grain, glutionus rice which I knew as "sticky rice" as well, but which they just called "rice". We went with the latter and a huge portion was spooned into a coffin-shaped styrofoam container.
From the "Thai Thai Daily" we settled on a beef eggplant stew. Other dishes that were good - members sampled from a helpful lady who turned out to sit next to us - were the pork and banana blossom stew, the bitter melon soup and the fried, heads-on, shrimp. All of these dishes were about $5 for a small container and $7(?) for a large one. The shrimp were very popular, and many families were ordering large portions to dip in a firey semi-thick chili sauce.
A kind of stuffed cabbage, made with savoy cabbage, glass noodles, pork sausage and some type of fish was served with the same kind of sauce. It had a pronounced fishy taste.
Other stalls offered dishes such as fried congee (rice porridge) and triangular slices of fried corn mush/polenta, hot curry noodle soup and, for afters, bright-colored gelatinous tapioca squares.
Larb, the popular beef salad was on offer for $5, but the papaya salad was a better choice. Long strands of papaya were mixed with green beans, Thai eggplant, tamarind, chilis and lime. The heat was not immediately apparent, but you felt it first after swallowing and it was appreciated even by two of our party who are fairly "heat adverse".
We brought our own drinks, but also enjoyed a glass of Thai iced coffee, with its strong taste of roasted chicory. If bubble tea is your thing, there are many varieties to choose from, and this was a popular drink among both young and old patrons.
When I first encountered sticky rice from Laotian friends some 20 years ago, I was taught to take small bits of rice with my right hand, roll it into a ball, then flatten it out and use the rice in that form to scoop up stews or pick up meat. Around me today, most people under the age of 50 were eating with forks and spoons (no knives). I asked the young ladies next to me if it was conisdered impolite to eat with rice in that manner here in the US today. They assured me that many people did it, but something about their barely contained smiles made me ask if only their grandmothers ate like that. They dissolved into laughter and explained that it was an old-fashioned custom and that "modern" people ate with Western utensils. Just a word to the wise!