The scent of pork belly and lime filled the air on a recent Saturday at parking-lot-turned-farmers market in Northeast Anchorage.
Here, to the soundtrack of humming generators and traffic noise from the nearby Glenn Highway, more than a dozen vendors gathered to sell fresh produce, art and a diverse assembly of prepared foods.
Every weekend, Jimmy Yang and his father wake up at 6 a.m. to head to the market and begin setting up their food stand, Fresh Cooking. Like a majority of the vendors, Yang and his family are Hmong, and were part of establishing the market in 2017 as a place for the Hmong community to buy and sell food, produce and more.
“I felt like it was because people wanted to band up and create this small market to exchange their foods and buy fresh vegetables and greens,” Yang said. “They also wanted to implement food into it because they saw it as an opportunity to make a hustle out of it.”
The market — often called the Pena Park Market or the Hmong Market — has grown significantly over the years. It started with just a handful of vendors, but has expanded to reach the park’s maximum capacity.
“It’s a close-knit community and there’s quite a few of us,” Yang said.
Hmong people are descended from an Indigenous group from East and Southeast Asia. Many of the Hmong Americans who immigrated to the U.S. did so in the 1970s as refugees following the Laotian Civil War and Vietnam War. There are more than 300,000 Hmong Americans living in the U.S. today, with more than 3,500 Hmong people living in Anchorage — where the community has been growing over the last two decades.
“We don’t have a geographical country to point to, ‘Hey this is where our food comes from,’” said Mee Yang, who runs the front of house operations at her father’s stand, Fresh Cooking. “Similar to America, the food concept is based on influences of where you are. So a lot of these foods are of Southeast Asian influence. There’s Thai, Laos, papaya salad, pork belly — most of the vendors have around the same thing, but they each have their own little flair and twist.”
She said the market gives Hmong people like her “a sense of community.”
“You know Alaska is pretty small in terms of population — there’s things like the state fair that come once a year, but this is annually, every weekend throughout the summer,” she said. “It’s a good tourist thing. It’s also good for people who don’t want to cook, like me. It’s a very warming thing. It also helps with income.”
The market has been a bright spot for the wider Hmong community in Anchorage. Suzy Yang is a co-founder and administrator at Hmoob Cultural Center of Alaska, an early childhood development center in Anchorage that focuses on Hmong language instruction. She was born in a refugee camp, and came to California when she was 5 years old, eventually moving to Anchorage in 2011 with her husband and child.
“When I came here to Alaska I didn’t see as many Hmong people because I wasn’t familiar with the place yet, but as years went by I started seeing more Hmong people, and the population is growing here,” she said.
Today, she loves visiting the market, buying produce and trying the different dishes from the food vendors.
“I love the market,” she said. “Whatever I need, anything, I’m like, ‘OK, let’s go. Let’s go to the Hmong park.’”
Yer Vang, who has lived in Alaska for 24 years, sells herbs, cabbages, cucumbers, lemongrass and other produce at the Pena Park Market. For more than 15 years, she’s been growing her vegetables and herbs in and outside of greenhouses that she maintains in the valley. She said business on the produce side of the market has been “a little bit slower” lately. But, she’s noticed an uptick in the number of vendors.
“The food vendors are cooking good and there’s been more in the last couple of years, and more vegetable vendors than before too,” she said.
Mee Yang said the market has grown exponentially in the last couple of years, both in terms of visitors to the market and the people who are interested in becoming vendors.
A small farmers market for the Hmong Community existed in Lions Park in Mountain View 2015, but after a couple year hiatus, Yang said, Hmong people in Anchorage wanted to come together again to create another market “for the community.” The Pena Park Market started in 2017 with a few vendors. Now, there are about 15 vendors total, with about 10 food vendors selling a range of dishes like pork belly with chili sauce, fresh papaya salads and even birria tacos. She said the number of food vendors has grown twice as much since last year.
“We’ve seen more people come from other farmers markets,” she said. “With the addition of the Fairview market, some of those vendors have joined us so now that customer base has come over as well. And since we’re off the highway, and since it is fair season, a lot of the people that drive by they see us and they are curious so they do find their way in. With the campground being right there we do get campers that walk over here as well.”
Yang said her favorite dish is the pork belly.
“It’s fatty, it’s juicy, it’s also very sweet and salty, so there’s a balance in between,” she said.
Yang said the dishes they sell are “a bit more luxurious and laborious” than the food she grew up eating.
“I grew up eating very simple things like rice with water or boiled mustard greens with pork,” she said.
Their stand’s best-selling dish is the papaya salad, which Yang said has a nice variety of ingredients that give a contrast of salty, sweet and sour flavors.
Her father, George Yang, learned to make the dish from a woman in Thailand in 1997. Using the techniques she taught him, he makes the salads to order, presenting each ingredient to the customer.
“Carrots, good for your eyes,” he said before dropping a handful of shaved carrots into a large silver metal mortar, where he crushes all of the ingredients together to layer the flavors of the salad. He mixes the sliced papaya and all the other ingredients, and pours the mix into a gallon-sized plastic bag, which he hands off with a bag of lettuce leaves so you can assemble the salad right away or later that day.
On a sunny or busy weekend, he will make more than 100 of these labor-intensive salads.
On this Saturday, cloudy skies keep the lunch rush quiet. Despite the market’s increase in popularity, Yang said it is still somewhat of a hidden gem.
“The market, even though it looks like it’s growing and booming on a busy day, there are still a lot of people who don’t know about us,” she said.
People can find updates about the market on Facebook, at the page: “Pena Park Market.” The market runs from about 10:30 a.m. until about 5 p.m. every weekend, Saturday and Sunday, from May through the end of September.
Editor’s note: This reporting is supported in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this report do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.