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5 Dishes that Define Minnesota Cuisine & Where to Try Them

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Owamni  / Heidi Ehalt, Courtesy of Meet Minneapolis

5 Dishes that Define Minnesota Cuisine & Where to Try Them

The Land of 10,000 Lakes is home to a diverse food scene with influences from around the world melding together in a way that is uniquely Midwestern.

If you go by pop culture Minnesota’s food scene consists of Scandinavian dishes, a canned soup-based casserole of some sort (it’s called hot dish, thank you very much), state fair fare served on a stick and, of course, a Juicy Lucy hamburger.

While there’s some truth to such generalizations, food in Minnesota is anything but static, typical or boring. In fact, right now, it’s downright exciting.

A family-style feast of Khao Sen, grilled bronzini, roasted squash, purple sticky rice and more

A family-style feast featuring Khao Sen, grilled bronzini, roasted squash, purple sticky rice, Mama Vang's hot sauce and more / Eliesa Johnson/The Restaurant Project

The Land of 10,000 Lakes has been influenced by a multitude of different cultures. Some have called the state home for hundreds of years, like Northern European immigrants and Ethiopian refugees. Others, like the Ojibwe, Dakota and additional Indigenous tribes lay an ancient ancestral claim to the lake-laden land. New influences from East and West Africa as well as Asia and other spots around the world also contribute to the modern character of the state’s cuisine and culture.

And what unites Minnesota’s diverse food scene, according to Chef Yia Vang of acclaimed restaurant Union Hmong Kitchen, is a commitment to seasonal cooking.

Modern Minnesotan cuisine is based off of what we grow here,” Vang says. “It’s about what we get from our farmers.”

Yia Vang stands smiling, arms crossed, under a large outdoor tent with smoke from a cooking fire

Vang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and grew up in central Wisconsin before moving to the Twin Cities. “The unifying theme here, and I really saw this growing up in the Midwest, is pickling and fermenting,” explains Vang. “A friend of mine talks about how in the North we harvest vegetables in the fall, and throughout the summer all of the sun is captured inside this vegetable. So when we pickle it, then eat it in the winter and there’s that sharp, tangy, acid taste — that’s actually the element of the sun being captured.”

In addition, Yang is combining classic Midwest comfort foods with flavors from Hmong culture that draw crowds to his restaurant nightly. And yes, one of those dishes involves tater tots. (A hot take on hot dish featuring a red coconut curry sauce, homemade Hmong sausage, and charred root vegetables from nearby farmers.

And he’s not the only local chef making food worth traveling for. The following seven dishes showcase the vibrant Minnesota restaurant scene happening right now, from a revival of pre-European indigenous food to Ethiopian beef stew.

  1. Southern Hospitality Bowl: Gerard Klass of Soul Bowl
    A selection of entrees and desserts from Soul Bowl

    Soul Bowl

    Southern Hospitality Bowl: Gerard Klass of Soul Bowl

    Black Americans have called Minnesota home since the early 1800s. During the Great Migration, which saw Black Americans move from the rural South to the urban Northeast and Midwest, the state’s Black population grew by as much as 149 percent.

    Chef Gerald Klass of Soul Bowl in Minneapolis reimagines the soul food of his childhood in the millennial-friendly bowl format. The Southern Hospitality Bowl is a veritable greatest hits of southern soul food classics, including collard greens, candied yams, mac and cheese and fried chicken. Klass also incorporates Caribbean influences into many of the dishes — an homage to his own Guyanese heritage.

  2. Smoked Bison: Sean Sherman of Owamni
    The bison entree at Owamni

    The bison entree at Owamni  / John Yuccas / Meet Minneapolis

    Smoked Bison: Sean Sherman of Owamni

    Chef Sean Sherman of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe is a nationally recognized leader of contemporary Native American cuisine in Minnesota. At the James Beard Award-winning Owamni along the Minneapolis riverfront, he prepares a shareable plate of smoked bison with a flavorful stock reduction, ribeye-braised greens, and sweet potato mash.  

    The rest of the menu reflects a dedication to pre-colonial ingredients. Meaning: no dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, beef, chicken or pork, and a one-of-a-kind menu that leans on locally grown produce, wild plants, heirloom varieties from Native American farms, and Indigenous game, fish, birds and insects. 

    For more information on Sherman's Indigenous Food Lab and other initiatives under The Sioux Chef banner, check out the non-profit he co-founded with food sovereignty leader Dana Thompson here

  3. Swedish Meatballs and Semla: FIKA, The Cafe at the American Swedish Institute
    Semla buns at American Swedish Institute

    Semla buns  / American Swedish Institute

    Swedish Meatballs and Semla: FIKA, The Cafe at the American Swedish Institute

    Minnesota’s Northern European immigrants from Sweden and Norway have had an enduring impact on the state’s cuisine. Lefse (Norwegian potato flatbread), gravlax (smoked salmon), and lutefisk (cod preserved in lye) are mainstays of Scandinavian-American cuisine, but nothing is more beloved than Swedish meatballs, or köttbullar.

    The American Swedish Institute’s FIKA cafe in Minneapolis balances Scandinavian-American tradition with contemporary cooking, while also making use of regional ingredients. Be sure to save room for a Semla, too. This sweet almond and cardamom creme-filled bun is perfect for a sweet after-lunch treat and available around the Easter season every year. 

  4. Siga Wat: Russom Solomon of The Red Sea
    The veggie sampler at The Red Sea

    The veggie sampler at The Red Sea

    Siga Wat: Russom Solomon of The Red Sea

    Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia arrived in Minnesota. Since then, the community has grown even more. Representative Ilhan Omar, a member of the community, made history in 2019 when she was sworn in as the first African refugee to become a Member of Congress.

    East African restaurants now dot the Twin Cities and beyond, but one favorite is The Red Sea. Owner Russom Solomon combines Ethiopian and Eritrean influences along with an Italian streak owing to the region’s colonial past. A standout dish is the traditional siga wat, a slow cooked beef stew prepared in aromatic Berbere spice and served with a side of injera, Ethiopian sour fermented flatbread. Vegetarians can also opt for a six-item sampler or a super veggie combo that feeds two people. 

  5. Tumeric and Dill Fish: Christine Nguyen of Hai Hai
    Minneapolis restaurant serves four plates of Vietnamese food on a wooden table

    Try the Vietnamese street foods at Hai Hai restaurant and bar in Minneapolis / Matt Lien courtesy of Meet Minneapolis

    Tumeric and Dill Fish: Christine Nguyen of Hai Hai

    From 1979 to 1999, Minnesota welcomed more than 15,000 Vietnamese refugees and the community has steadily grown ever since. It didn’t take long for Vietnamese cuisine to become a fixture in the Twin Cities dining scene.

    Christine Nguyen of Hai Hai in Northeast Minneapolis combines Vietnamese flavors with culinary influences from across Southeast Asia. Her Tumeric and Dill Fish dish is inspired by a trip to Vietnam, but feels serendipitously connected to the Scandinavian flavors well known to her fellow Minnesotans.