Nai Siew Saechao and May Yan Saechao share a laugh talking about the herbs they grow at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in Oakland.
Nai Siew Saechao (l) and May Yan Saechao (r) share a laugh talking about the herbs they grow at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in Oakland. Photo: KQED/Don Clyde

The Mien people of Laos had to leave in a hurry after the end of the Vietnam War. Like another Southeast Asian minority, the Hmong, the Mien supported the US (specifically, the CIA and Royal Lao Army). So when the US pulled out of Vietnam and Laos, many Mien made a run for the Thai border.

“We left everything!” says Nai Siew Saechao, 77, of Oakland. “Cows, horse, pig, chickens. And of course the grain. The rice, corn. You can’t carry it.”

Like many Mien, Saecho first ended up in a Thai refugee camp, then moved overseas. Decades later, she’s growing a taste of home in the heart of East Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, at the Peralta Hacienda Historical Park. It’s part of a joint program between the park and Lao Family Community Development. The idea is to give elderly refugees a place to do what they grew up doing: growing their own food. Westerners called it “subsistence farming,” but that doesn’t communicate the joy these gardeners cultivate along with their vegetables.

The farmers grow many things we’re all familiar with: pumpkins, corn, squash and so on. But perhaps the most interesting plants come straight from seed sent by family and friends back in Laos and Thailand.

Tafoo Saechao (it’s a common surname among the Mien) is a counselor for Lao Family, which estimates at least 450-500 Mien seniors in Oakland arrived in the early 1980s: all with little to no English-speaking skills.

Even Tafoo, who serves as our interpreter, struggles to name everything the farmers are growing. “Back in Laos, they grow many kinds [of beans].” Laughing as he points to one variety, he says “It’s a funny name but I don’t know how to say it in English. One kind of bean they call chicken crow’s bean. Jae gai dop. They have many names. And many kinds: long ones, short ones, medium ones.”

Yen Fong with Top Kway
Yen Fong with Top Kway. Photo: Nina Egert

You’ve seen Top Kway in Asian markets. Break these long, skinny beans into manageable pieces and you can do anything you’d do with a shorter green bean, like fry them up in oil with hot peppers and/or spices.

In a similar fashion, many traditional herbs work well in any recipe that calls for a mix of herbs like mint and cilantro, whether stir-fried or stewed.

Nai Siew holding herbs. Photo: KQED/Don Clyde

That said, some of the herbs grown at Peralta Hacienda have specific medicinal qualities you’ll want to know about before you throw them in your pot.

Dyear Zwang, for instance, is often cooked with chicken, and served to post-partum women to help stop bleeding and rebuild their iron reserves. Zyeah Awh Myeeah, also cooked with chicken, encourages lactation. Just so you know…

After May Yan Saechao arrived in Alabama (a pit stop on the way to Oakland), she sent a cassette tape to friends in Thailand, asking for some Dyear Zwang to grow here in the U.S. Unclear on the concept, her friends sent her the plants, which did not arrive in good shape. She managed to salvage a few seeds and sent those back. Finally, a package arrived bearing enough seeds for her to establish a local crop for Mien women here in the U.S.

Lai Buah, or wild blue mustard greens.
Lai Buah, or wild blue mustard greens. Photo: KQED/Don Clyde

Foo Sina, 76, is particularly fond of his Lai Buah, or wild blue mustard greens. He likes to saute them with garlic, salt, dried red pepper, and soy sauce. You’d think the fresh appeal of farm to table would carry naturally through the generations, but Sina complains his grandchildren are not carrying on the tradition. Instead, they’re happy to eat traditional foods that somebody else pulls out of the ground and prepares in the kitchen. “They lazy! They didn’t do anything. Only eat, go to the store, buy there. Very easy spend the money.”

If you’re inclined to be “lazy” and let somebody else do the cooking, you can find Mien dishes at Champa Gardens and Vientan Café, both in Oakland. You’ll notice them described as “Asian fusion” and “Vietnamese, Thai,” but those in the know say there’s somebody Mien in the kitchen.

Recipe: Mey Yan’s Num (Pumpkin Blossoms)

Pick 2 quarts worth of pumpkin blossoms. Remove stems and strings. Heat up vegetable oil in a frying pan, toss in blossoms and sprinkle with salt. Cook until tender. Serve!

A Taste of Laos in East Oakland 31 August,2013Rachael Myrow

  • Cheng Saephanh

    Thank you so much for this article! It’s been an entertaining and educational read. As a member of the community, it’s wonderful to see the recognition our Iu-Mien farmers are getting here in the bay. The Peralta Hacienda is a fine establishment and their Iu-Mien exhibit as well as the other ones that they’ve hosted have been astounding. 

  • Hodgpodgeglobal

    Ms. May Yan Saechao is such a gem for our community. We exchange a nice smile and greetings each time I see her when I complete my docent duties. I must share that she took time with two little children while watering her garden. It was such a sweet and caring kindness she extended to them.  I am so glad that she and the other Meins garden here.


Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED’s Silicon Valley Arts Reporter, covering arts, culture and technology in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She regularly files stories for NPR and the KQED podcast Bay Curious, and guest hosts KQED’s Forum.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
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