Fooition Amid Denver’s Refugee Community
Finding Fooition at Home
I was eager to stay connected with Asian culture upon returning to Denver. After living in China for a year and a half, the culture, and especially the food culture, had seeped deep down in me somewhere (no, not just my stomach). I felt almost as if I was leaving my home when I boarded the plane in Kunming. I traveled through Vietnam, Laos and Thailand for 2 months before I returned, which just made me more enamored and enchanted by that region of the world. Coming back home to Colorado in the dead of winter made me fell like I had lost something.
Perhaps that was because of the sudden lack of chili peppers in my life, or sunshine. And yet, it was more than that; it was the way people invited me into their homes minutes after a chance meeting on the bus, the bustling street, or through a friend of a friend of a friend. The way I never ate alone, even though I was traveling by myself. The way people expressed genuine curiosity about everything unfamiliar to them, and the way they encouraged my own eager inquiries about their livelihood. The food culture was rich, centuries of passed down living tradition taking form in exquisitely spiced dishes and slow-simmered soups. The people were rich too, not always materially, but always in spirit. My time in China was truly life changing, but you can read more about that in my Fooition in China post. Now back to Denver.
A inevitable and serendipitous sequence of events led me to start volunteering at Project Worthmore (a non-profit resource center for refugees) on East Colfax, just where Denver ends and Aurora begins. I came to find out that Colorado is home to a large population of refugees, an estimated 50,000 over the last 35 years, and that Burmese, Nepali, and Somali make up a the majority of recently re-located refugees in the Denver-Metro area. I must admit I was slightly disappointed that I could not use my Mandarin to communicate with any of the Burmese people I started to meet, yet there was still something about communicating with them that was reminiscent of the relationships I had forged in China. Something warm and vibrant, intense yet refreshingly simple. I felt like I had found a little pocket of my home away from home.
So I kept volunteering to help with the food sharing program at Project Worthmore. I went to local food banks and stuffed as many boxes of rescued food into my Subaru Outback as possible. Every Wednesday I helped with distributing food to the line of refugees that would show up 20 minutes before we opened the doors to ensure they were there before things started to run out. The largest group by far were Burmese, but there were also Sudanese, Nepali, Congolese, and some Afghani and Middle Eastern families. Each group had their likes and dislikes when it came to vegetables. The Muslim groups did not eat pork so we did our best to save chicken for them. Eggs were popular with everyone.
One thing that was different from your average food pantry, was that our food sharing program only distributed fresh foods. No canned veggies or mystery meats. Not even pre-prepared meals or TV dinners. We refused to take the loads upon loads of day-old cupcakes, cookies, and pastries that dominated the supplies of many food banks. The reason for this was simple. The refugees just didn’t like them. Imagine how odd and alien a Lean Cuisine TV dinner would seem after coming from a part of the world where people shop daily for fresh meat and vegetables and use their own spice concoctions to cook complex and sometimes even medicinal meals. They knew better than to take canned veggies, a few had tried them after being given them at other food pantries, but they exclaimed, “There is no flavor, what is the point?”
Of course you can say beggars can’t be choosers, but I would argue that everyone deserves fresh, healthy food. Why not? Are we really doing our poor and homeless any favors by giving them TV dinner throw-aways and day-old cookies that they can wash back with Coca-Cola? Or does this just condemn them to Americanize even their health issues? Maybe we should give them pockets of under-utilized urban land and teach them (or in some cases learn from them) how to grow fresh food and support local markets instead. This might sound radical, but with 1 in 7 American’s facing a reality of food insecurity, we need to invest in radical solutions. The below clip by Great Nations Eat challenges the common belief that the US is in a position to help developing countries combat hunger.
Population density is less in the U.S. than any part of Asia, and yet somehow the US agriculture system fails to provide enough fresh meat and produce for our population, even with our ample land. In China, despite only having 7% of the world’s arable land while needing to feed almost a 5th of the worlds’ population, they manage to have fresh vegetables and fruit sold on almost every street corner, alleyway, and sidewalk. Our exorbitant food waste, worsened by de-localized food systems, is a big part of the problem. It is time we start looking at other countries as role models, instead of trying to export the US food industry as the best and only modern way to feed a growing global population.
Culturally Empowering Nutrition
The food sharing program grew, and so did my fondness of using body language to try and communicate with the smiling Burmese woman while they waited in line. For the most part we could only exchange small pleasantries but still I felt connected to them somehow. We would exchange tentative laughs as they tried to have a good attitude about the over-abundance of cabbages one week, and the lack any meat the next.
Project Worthmore offered several classes for the refugee community, including English and job skill classes. My friend who was temporarily teaching nutrition classes heard about my research in China on diet, health, and food culture and thought I should sit in and give some feedback. There were only 2 participants and my friend told me that attendance was inconsistent. The topic for that day was ‘Healthy Snacks for Kids’ and towards the end we actually made some healthy snacks for the two ladies and their children to try. The snacks included celery sticks with peanut butter, tortilla cheese wraps and baked sweet potato slices. Aside from the sweet potatoes the snacks were pretty foreign to the Burmese mothers, and while they tried to be polite I could tell there was no way they were going to feed this to their kids.
I thought it might be worth it to ask them what snacks they normally fed to their children, to which they responded, “Mama’s Noodles” which are basically the Asian brand of cup-o-noodles with different flavors and whopping dosages of MSG. The next class my friend let me lead the cooking portion and I had us make healthy noodle soup from scratch with budget ingredients. They were impressed that it only took 10 minutes and how good it tasted without MSG. As far as I am concerned, I wasn’t teaching them how to cook noodle soup, that is something they all know how to do already (and probably more deliciously than me). What I was doing was providing some information about why Mama’s Noodles were not good for their kids (or anyone for that matter) and reminding them that it was worth it to make it themselves.
Shortly after that, the nutrition classes paused for several reasons. I was determined to start them back up again but I knew I could not do it by myself. One day I met a woman named Zin Zin and she turned out to be the magic ingredient to make it all possible. I was at a meeting to discuss how to improve the future of the food sharing program. Towards the end of the meeting I mentioned that I wanted to start teaching nutrition classes, but hoped to include a cooking class as well. While I did learn some amateur recipes for Chinese food during my time there, I knew nothing about Burmese cooking, and I expressed I would need help from a Burmese community member to do the classes right. Minutes later, as the meeting adjourned, Zin Zin bounced over to talk to me and exclaimed with a smile filling her whole face, “I love cooking! I would like to help you.” We talked some more and I quickly realized there was real potential for us to work as a team. Her English comprehension was impressive, especially considering she had only been in the U.S. for 6 months at this point. Suddenly I had a someone I could actually communicate with and gain some insights about the complex Burmese cultures which I had become so curious about in the last few months.
Within weeks we were holding our first class. Zin Zin was able to translate my nutrition lesson and add a few personal anecdotes specific to Burmese food culture. The first class we had 3 students, and 2 of them turned out to be our most loyal students, coming every class and bringing their friends. I laid out a simple lesson and had everyone say their favorite food as an ice breaker. I introduced the concept of Fooition to them and told them that a lot of the traditions and beliefs they know from their own food culture could be a strong foundation for healthy eating. The way I saw it, my job was not to teach them how to eat “healthy” in the Western sense of the word. These ladies didn’t need to know how to count calories or decipher the food pyramid. What they did need was some tips about how to maintain a well-balanced diet in the U.S. and how to navigate the unique challenges of our food system.
Most of the time my students still cooked Burmese style food at home and I was impressed at their tenacity to hunt down special ingredients they had to order weeks in advance from Asian markets to make certain dishes for special occasions. One lady I met invited me to her mother’s birthday party where they somehow managed to get a whole goat so they could make a traditional stew with goats head. They may be working with limited resources, but I can tell you, they still know how to host a feast. This was not so surprising considering what I noticed in China. People of every economic reality make a big deal about food. Sometimes people with less are all the more skilled at taking whatever they can get and making it delectable through arduous preparation and age old spice combinations. Knowing that their traditional recipes were so important to them, I decided that the cooking class at the end of each nutrition lesson would be a traditional Burmese recipe cooked by Zin Zin.
The two of us would meet each week before class to plan out the lesson and decide what dish would be most appropriate for that weeks lesson. One week we focused on meat and highlighted the importance of balancing the meal with vegetables. We made balls of ground chicken and spices and served them in a soup broth with noodles and fresh vegetables. One of the leafy greens we used was arugula, which is not found in Burma, but Zin Zin noted that none of them knew how to use it but kept finding it at the food sharing program. She thought it would be a good substitute for another green they could not buy here that is often used in soups.
One week we focused on sugar and did a demonstration with about 10 different kinds of drinks frequently purchased from the Asian markets in the neighborhood. We measured actual sugar with teaspoons, based on the grams listed on the nutrition facts label. None of them were surprised about Coke and Red Bull having a lot of sugar, but many of them were stunned to see with their own eyes how much sugar was actually in the ‘natural’ fruit juices and flavored yogurts that they thought were healthy. Zin Zin made rice pudding using half brown rice to bring down the glycemic index and palm sugar instead of white sugar. Another week we talked about Diabetes and glycemic load and Zin Zin prepared a beautiful okra and egg stew. Turns out okra is really good for diabetes.
The last class of the winter series I had them vote on what topic we should cover. Their pick: what to eat when you’re pregnant. I taught this class from an integrative nutrition perspective. The main points from the Western nutrition are all about what not too eat: no deep sea fish because of the mercury, no raw fish because of the bacteria, no caffeine, alcohol or other drugs. I also wanted to go over what is good to eat and for this I drew mostly upon my Healing with Whole Foods book, that offers nutritional principles from the Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, and the Weston A. Price Foundation, an theory of ideal diet based on global populations that display longevity. Both encourage lots of good quality (pasture-raised) meats and organ meats, lots of healthy oils and fats, avocados and coconuts, fermented foods and a diverse array of vegetables. Apparently, avocado is great for pregnant woman and one of the best first foods to feed an infant, not Cheerios!
It is suggested that sugar and processed grains are limited. I found it fascinating that a lot of the things suggested by international nutrition systems for pregnant women to eat, are things that are hardest to find (or at least afford) in the U.S. For this class Zin Zin made a congee (slow cooked rice porridge) with salmon and ginger. The oil from the salmon is rich in omega-3s and great for pregnant women. The woman chimed in with a bunch of anecdotes about what they believed was good to eat when pregnant in their culture. One example is, “bananas make the baby bigger,” and while I can not prove this, I did find that bananas are one of the best fruits for women to eat during pregnancy.
Culturally empowering nutrition is all about highlighting the existing practices within a food culture that promote health. Sometimes rather than starting from scratch, immigrants and refugees already have a hard drive full of knowledge about how to eat healthy. Just recognizing what they already know as valid empowers them to feel their background and culture are indeed valuable. Perhaps they do not need to throw this all away in order to adapt to life in America. Maybe integration is just as much about native Americans learning from their new neighbors, as it is us helping them make a new life here.
What I Learned from My Students
My goal was not to be the teacher and for them to be the students, but to co-teach with Zin Zin and have all of us learn together about how to eat healthier in Denver’s food landscape. I did not try to romanticize the eating habits of my students. Of course, the modern Burmese diet, like many modern Asian diets, has been infiltrated with processed foods high in white sugar, sodium, and MSG. However, the base of their diet still remains; fish, meat, fresh vegetables, and rice. Beyond the basics, their food culture is rich with nuances of how to eat in harmony with the seasons, how to eat to heal certain ailments and how to balance flavors within a single meal in a way that is beneficial for the body.
For example, one day I was feeling a touch of a sore throat and I was at Zin Zin’s house to plan the lesson. She gave me a soup that was intensely sour from Roselle leafs and told me it would help. She explained that since it was Fall people are more prone to dry, scratchy throats because of the extra wind energy. In Burma they always counter this by eating Roselle leaf soup, because the sour flavor grounds the energy in the body and helps combat the unbridled nature of wind and changing seasons. I felt better almost immediately.
The dish Zin Zin made for our first class is a perfect illustration of how traditional food culture can still be carried on, even amidst the busy chaotic reality of today’s food system. Fish paste is an essential ingredient in numerous Burmese dishes. Zin Zin still makes it the traditional way, by boiling small fish like sardines, then adding salt and spices and sautéing it into a paste. She showed our students how to make this, and then mixed the base with tomatoes, chili oil and garlic to make a fish paste curry which is served as a dip with cucumbers, carrots, green mango and any number of other tasty things. It packs a punch and tastes far better than the fish paste you can buy at the Asian market in a glass jar. It is also better for you, because it has less sodium and no MSG. Fish paste is an ingredient that can be immensely healthy if made from scratch, and equally detrimental to health when it is store bought. The students all agreed that Zin Zin’s version tasted far superior.
A lot of our class material revolved around getting back to cooking and eating the way our grandmothers did. I wanted the nutrition portion of the classes to be as relevant and realistic as possible. I didn’t want to tell them not to eat white rice. Instead, I stressed the importance of pairing white rice with foods high in fiber and/or protein to help lower the glycemic load. I did not suggest they buy organic meats because I know it is out of their price range. However, I did suggest they go to the local Ethiopian butcher who gets meat from local ranchers, and doesn’t charge an arm and a leg for it, instead of buying their meats at Wal-mart. I did not use the food pyramid or My plate as references. Instead I laid out simple universal guidelines (below) that don’t clash with any major principles of Burmese food culture.
1) Balance. Make sure the vegetables on your plate are colorful and take up almost half of your plate at mealtime, or half your daily intake of food. Eating more vegetables is always a good thing. The more the better, the fresher the better, the more colorful the better. Meat and carbs aren’t bad but they should never dominate your diet.
2) Eat Real Foods. If it wasn’t a food when your grandma was a kid, it probably is a “food-ish” food and you probably shouldn’t eat. For example, fish paste sold in a jar with MSG was not on the market when my students grandmas were kids. Neither was canned mango juice, Coca-Cola, KFC concoctions, or so many of the packaged crackers and cookies that have flooded Asian countries in the last few decades. If you must buy packaged foods, avoid the ones with long ingredient lists, or ones that contain ingredients that are long and likely chemically derived. For example, Mama’s Noodles are filled with things that would never show up on the ingredient list of a homemade noodle soup recipe. So make it from scratch.
3) Pay attention to your body. There is no One Diet for everybody because every body is different. So even if a food is supposed to be healthy, that doesn’t automatically mean it is healthy for you. Notice how you feel after you eat, do you have energy or do you suddenly feel tired, or anxious, or physically uncomfortable? Our body sends us messages about what it is good for it and what is not. This may seem esoteric to the Westerner, but in many Eastern health systems like TCM and Ayurveda, this concept is foundational, so my students grasped it pretty quickly.
These are global principles that can help all of us get in touch with our sense of Fooition and feel confident to make empowered food decisions.