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Kham Su Lor’s life was getting hectic.
Between fixing computers and helping customers all day at Lor Imports & Custom PC shop, a tiny storefront with scattered harddrives and computer monitors, he frequently lost track of time.
The more clients he took on, the better for his retail business in Hmong Village Shopping Center in St. Paul.
But it came at a cost to his health. To keep alert, he’d drink four to five cans of soda each day. For meals, he’d grab fast food from the stands at the shopping mall, frequently starchy food like sticky rice and salty, fatty fare like sausage.
Three years ago, Lor, now 43, developed an infected cyst on his head. His doctor told him he was working too much, causing unnecessary stress and a poor diet. Lor also confided in Nom Xyooj Vang, a tranquil older merchant with a health shop next door whom he had befriended. Vang offered advice to the good-humored Lor.
“You can’t make enough money to fix your body,” Vang told him.
Lor’s doctor prescribed strong antibiotics for the infection, which had their own side effects. To help with constipation, Vang encouraged Lor to start drinking the buckwheat tea he sells at his shop, Hmong Paj Tawg Eastern Health.
At first, Lor said he was skeptical that the tea would help him. “I didn’t really believe it,” he said. “But in our culture, if the elders give you something, you take it.”
Buckwheat tea isn’t the only reason, or perhaps even the major reason, but Lor’s health took a turn for the better. And his friendship with Vang, whom he affectionately calls “uncle,” is now giving him a new opportunity to extoll buckwheat’s benefits to others.
Vang helped Lor develop a regimen: Drink one cup in the morning at the beginning of work, drink another cup before lunch, and another cup during lunch. Whenever Lor ate a snack between meals, he’d drink a cup of tea as well.
After three days, Lor’s constipation ended. He kept drinking the tea, started to eat less, and lost weight. Lor said he once weighed 285 pounds. He eventually dropped 70 pounds.
Lor doesn’t attribute all of this to the tea itself. He started packing healthier foods for lunch during workdays. When he did grab fast food at the mall, he would substitute steamed tilapia or tofu for sausage and vegetables for rice. Vang and others in his life also provided moral support. Drinking the tea consistently, however, helped him facilitate his change.
“This really helps maintain the lifestyle,” he said, seated in Vang’s shop and sipping tea out of a shot-sized glass.
Vang, 62, has been consuming buckwheat all of his life. He is from Wenshan, a city in China’s rural Yunnan Province with a large Hmong population. He was born in 1959, during a time of widespread famine during the failed Great Leap Forward, when tens of millions of people in the country died of starvation.
During that time, people grew buckwheat out of necessity. It’s easy to cultivate. Buckwheat can grow in bad soil and be planted twice a year, providing a supplement to crops like rice and corn, which are more difficult to grow.
Although buckwheat has long been popular in China with many populations, including the Hmong, it has never really been a part of Hmong culture in southeast Asia. That’s largely because in other areas, people had more leeway to plant crops and practice slash-and-burn farming, Vang said.
“In the past, only poor people would consume buckwheat,” Vang said. “For people who were in mountainous areas or areas where you couldn’t plant corn or rice, buckwheat would survive.”
That’s largely changed in the past 40 years, as China transformed from an impoverished, closed society into an economic superpower. Now buckwheat is trendy among health-conscious cosmopolitans, Vang said, and it’s also expensive, selling for a higher price than rice.
Buckwheat does have plenty of known health benefits. A 2018 peer-reviewed study in the journal Nutrients, for example, found that buckwheat consumption reduced cholesterol and blood glucose levels.
Typically grown as a cover crop, buckwheat is classified as a pseudocereal because it produces seeds similar to grains. While most cereals contain a handful of proteins, buckwheat has enough to be on par with eggs, according to George Annor, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Sciences. Buckwheat contains amino acids like lysine, which helps keep skin healthy. It also has antioxidants, which help reduce free radicals in the body.
People with hypertension can benefit from the rutin levels in buckwheat. It’s also low on the glycemic index, and it’s even gluten free.
Besides its popularity in China, buckwheat is also frequently consumed in Russia and some parts of Europe like France, Annor said. In North America, not so much.
“It’s not really grown here.” Annor said. “And many people cannot deal with the bitterness.”
The type of buckwheat that Vang sells is imported from China and processed. Because of this, much of its bitterness has already been removed. To mitigate it further, Vang adds jiaogulan, another herb he sells that acts similar to ginseng and can lower cholesterol, and mini-tea roses. The end result is a tea that tastes much like saltine crackers.
Vang sells all three ingredients in a pack for $75, which, if drunk on a daily basis, will last customers 70 days. People can also opt for 30 single-serve packets of just buckwheat, which costs $25, or a bulk bag of buckwheat that lasts 70 days and costs $30.
‘Tea should be enjoyed’
Customers don’t just buy tea from Vang. They’re welcome to sit in his shop and drink it as well. Endless bags of tea and herbs on the shelves surround the empty center of Vang’s shop. People drinking tea here sit on short stools around a wooden table.
Vang serves his guests tea in a ceremonial way. He starts by putting one teaspoon of buckwheat and a half teaspoon of jiaogulan and tea roses in a tea steeper. Then he adds the hot water, which he lets sit for two minutes. Next, he pours the tea into a carafe, and then again into another carafe. This is to cool the temperature.
Vang serves customers the final product in tiny, shot-sized cups, which he says best brings out the tea’s taste.
When asked how the tea is contributing to his health, Vang lets out a smile. He points to his bare arms, emphasizing how they don’t have wrinkles. He says he still has hair, and that it’s still mostly black in color. And even though he doesn’t exercise and has spent the last five years as a merchant sitting down during the day, Vang said he’s hardly gained any weight.
Having said all this, Vang emphasizes one other important point: buckwheat tea is not medicine.
“Tea should be enjoyed,” he said. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a fix. It can help your health, but if you think of it that way, it can put you in the wrong mindset.”
Annor made a similar observation. Anyone experiencing health issues should see their doctor and follow professional medical advice, he said. But healthy eating can help as well, and consuming buckwheat falls under that category.
After going on the buckwheat tea regimen, Lor said his doctor noticed the changes. His doctor was fine with it, as long as it didn’t contain tons of sugar or caffeine.
“He didn’t go to the point where he was going to endorse any kind of alternative practice,” Lor said. “But he said being hydrated and having a lot of fluids in your stomach to help you digest your food is not a bad thing at all.”
An untapped market
Vang’s interest in selling buckwheat tea came toward the end of his career working for the Chinese government. First that was at the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, where he helped provide resources for the Chinese diaspora in other countries as well as people returning to the country. Vang also worked for China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, where he helped with disaster relief.
His government career put him in touch with people all over the world. This included affiliates with the now-defunct Lao Family Community organization, the first Laotian nonprofit in the U.S., founded by General Vang Pao. Through his contacts there, Vang was introduced to the Hmong diaspora in the U.S.
As he was getting ready to retire, Vang came as a tourist to the U.S. in 2014 and 2015 and visited areas with large Hmong populations like Fresno, California and St. Paul. He noticed that many Hmong people had health conditions like diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. He also knew that because most Hmong people in the U.S. originally came from Laos, where buckwheat isn’t a part of the culture, it was an opportunity. After scouting different areas, he settled on Hmong Village and got investment money from the mall’s owners to begin. Vang opened Hmong Paj Tawg Eastern Health in 2016.
Today, he has recurring regular customers, who are a mix of Hmong, Latino, African immigrant, and white. He estimates that he sells roughly $3,000 worth of buckwheat tea each month.
Before the pandemic, Vang had plans to expand to multiple locations and sell the tea at stands during health trade shows. COVID-19 put a halt to that, but he’s managed to stay in business.
COVID-19 brought personal changes to Vang’s life as well. In late July, he flew back to China. He plans to spend time with his family there and travel around the country, something he said he never really got a chance to do during his career. When asked how long he intends to stay in China, Vang says for the foreseeable future, prompting a visible surprise from Lor.
Lor had already agreed to run Hmong Paj Tawg Eastern Health while Vang was in China, but he hadn’t realized it may be indefinitely. “I’m just finding this out as you are,” Lor told a reporter, laughing.