The First Burmese Village Dinner
The Need that Planted the Seed
Zin Zin and I had been running the nutrition classes at Project Worthmore (PMW) for about 4 weeks when we both realized that we wanted to get paid for the amount of work we were doing. I say wanted here instead of should because we knew PMW faced challenges characteristic of non-profit organizations, like inconsistent funding and thinly stretched resources. Many of their programs were completely dependent on volunteers. However, that didn’t change the fact that if we were going to keep doing the classes, we needed some form of compensation for our hours.
At this point Zin Zin and I were each putting about 8 hours into the preparation and class time each week. Here’s how.
We met each week for about 2 hours to discuss whatever topic were planning to cover. This usually involved Zin Zin telling me what specific concerns and beliefs existed in her community around a specific food group or health issue. For example, one week we talked about diabetes and high blood pressure and she informed me that these were the two most common diseases that plagued Burmese people, both in Burma and within the refugee community. I asked questions about how the diet has changed in Burma over the last few decades and she told me about the rise in processed foods, soda, and meat consumption. These meetings helped me plan the nutrition discussion to be tailored and interactive, and it helped Zin Zin get ready to translate what I would be talking about.
We also had to decide upon a dish for the weekly cooking demonstration and make sure it was aligned with the topic for that week. Zin Zin would often shop for the ingredients at an Asian market the day before; then I would reimburse her and then Project Worthmore would reimburse me. A little complicated, but we made it work.
The classes were held every Saturday morning from 9 to 11 in the community room of the Mango House (a building dedicated to housing several non-profit groups including PMW). Zin Zin and I showed up at least a half hour early to prep the space for the class. A lot of the time we would need to pick up a few of the students with young children that needed a ride in order to attend class. Most students were women and brought one or two children along with them. Luckily, I had a few volunteers that agreed to help with childcare in the room next door so mothers could focus on the class.
At the end of each class, when Zin Zin’s gastronomic masterpiece of the day was done, all of us (the kids, the students, the volunteers) gathered together to enjoy the food. This time served as a space for students to ask less formal questions of me, things they might just be curious about, like what do Americans do for the Superbowl, or how does one go about getting a drivers license in this country. I also took the opportunity to ask more questions about the cuisine as well as certain ingredients and cooking methods that peaked my interest.
Getting to know my students and seeing a glimpse of their everyday lives over the first class series doubled my sense of dedication. But this didn’t change the fact that Zin Zin and I both felt we needed to get paid. She was a mother of 2 kids and living off food stamps, and I was a broke recent college grad, trying to scrape by on waitressing tips. Also, we knew the classes themselves weren’t sustainable. Project Worthmore was able to refund the $20 or so we were spending each week on ingredients for the cooking class, but they informed us they wouldn’t be able to keep this up forever. So we decided we needed to brainstorm.
The Birth of Burmese Village Dinners
The idea came to me the day Zin Zin invited both my wife and I to her house for the celebration of her son’s two year birthday. Birthdays seem to be a pretty big deal in Burmese culture (at least that is the impression I get from the two I have attended) and they are definitely cause for a feast. Throughout the day Zin Zin had about 40 people in and out of her 1 bedroom apartment and she cooked enough to easily feed 50.
I had already been impressed with her ability to whip up delicious dishes and snacks at our classes, but this was at a whole other level. She had prepared appetizers, soup, a main dish of Byrani rice, slow-cooked-fall-off-the-bone chicken curry, and desserts. A realization struck me: this woman can cook! I guess I already knew that, she had mentioned to me that some families in the Burmese community would occasionally pay her to cook for some family event of festival celebration, but now I was seeing first hand exactly what she meant.
The next day I told her about my idea to do a fundraiser for the classes by hosting a 5 course dinner fundraiser. If we could make it profitable we could successfully fund our own salaries for the nutrition classes. She was ecstatic to share her passion for cooking with the greater community. Like many things, coming up with the idea was the easiest part. Just getting it on the calendar proved to be challenging. The community room is a hot commodity at the Mango House and for various reasons we ended up having to change the date 3 times! In all honesty it was probably for the better, because I had originally tried to schedule it the week before my own wedding which looking back now, I realize was an insane idea. It ended up happening November 21st, a perfect way to add some spice to peoples palettes before Thanksgiving.
We started planning the menu weeks in advance. We decided to stick to the traditional flavors as much as possible. Zin Zin informed me that if we wanted to be 100% authentic, we would not be serving 5 courses. Usually in Burma, there is just one or two giant dishes that are then served family style. There were also certain dishes she felt would normally not be paired together in the same meal, but for the sake of giving our guests an opportunity to try a variety of flavors, we bent the rules a little. We still decided to serve each course family style, because we wanted our guests to get a sense of the community embedded in Burmese food culture.
The appetizer was easy to agree on: Dried Squid Salad, a dish Zin Zin had made for my friends and I that left us all licking our plates. It consisted of dried squid and several veggies that were blanched in vinegar water, and then tossed in a sesame chili sauce. The guests at Burmese Food Culture Night seemed to like it as much as we did.
The second course had to be Mohinga which deserves an entire post of its own. I kept hearing about Mohinga, but in my imagination it remained a mystical and unfathomable food until I saw it actually come to fruition. Mohinga was often my students response when I would use the ‘what’s your favorite food?’ question as an icebreaker to begin class. Hearing them describe it I couldn’t even grasp whether it was a soup, a stew, or a noodle dish, turns out it’s kind of all three. I was hearing ingredients like chickpea flour, banana stem, and fish and trying to make sense of it in my head. I had seen pictures, but they didn’t do it justice and revealed nothing of its contents.
Mohinga is arguable the national dish of Burma, competing only with Tea Leaf Salad. It is a complex noodle soup, with a fish and lemongrass base and broth thickened with chickpea flour and pureed yellow lentils. To make it right you need certain special ingredients like the tender, inner stem of a banana tree, that of course if you live in Colorado has to be ordered in advance at select Asian markets. The broth is poured over rice noodles and garnished with lime and cilantro. Those are only the most notable ingredients, Mohinga leaves even the most well-studied foodie wondering for days to come exactly what went into it.
Our third course was a feast of that same, scrumptious byrani rice and chicken curry I had eaten at Zin Zin’s son’s birthday party. I got to fully appreciate what makes the chicken curry so delectable when I helped cut about 40 onions into transparently thin slices and then watched Zin Zin slowly caramelize them in small batches the night before.
These dishes were accompanied by a Roselle leaf soup (Roselle is a cousin of the hibiscus flower and its dried flowers are often used in tea, but this was the first time I had come across the leafs). I came to learn weeks earlier that this soup has medicinal properties when Zin Zin gave me some after I told her I felt like I was getting a cold. She told me that the seasons were changing from summer to fall and it was windy, so of course I was getting a cold! The problem was my body was holding onto too much heat and it was stuck in my chest, but the sour roselle leafs would help the hot energy move down lower in my body and stop irritating my respiratory system. Sure enough, after drinking the soup my throat stopped hurting immediately and my sinuses cleared. Footion at its finest! Needless to say I was excited to have this soup show up on the menu.
We couldn’t be hypocrites and forget vegetables after all our lecturing on the importance of eating more of them, so we had two well-portioned vegetable dishes to serve with the main course. One was asparagus with dried shrimp and the other was an Asian vegetable best translated as watercress or morning glory stir-fried with garlic and chili. At this point most people I talked to were getting pretty full, but there was more! Dessert was an Agar Agar (a healthy gelatin replacement derived from seaweed) jello flavored with fresh strawberries and coconut milk.
It was a good thing dessert was light because there was still one more course! Tea Leaf Salad.
As mentioned before, Tea Leaf Salad is a valid contender for Burma’s national dish. It is perhaps even more exotic than the Mohinga, because just as it sounds it is made out of tea leafs, and how often do you end up finding those on a platter instead of a tea cup? Fresh tea leafs (which we also had to order in advance) are boiled lightly and then mixed with lemon juice and sesame oil. This already strong combination is then placed in the middle of a platter and served with any number of accompaniments, often including peanuts, dried shrimp, sliced tomatoes, toasted garlic and fried butter beans. It is incomparable to any other dish, and is traditionally served at the end of a meal; we decided to stick with that even though we knew American’s would find it a bit strange after dessert. We served it with a simple salad of thinly sliced green apples mixed with chili powder and lime juice for those people wanting a palette cleanser that was a bit less exotic.
The tea leaf salad was of course served with tea. During this time we held a discussion panel with Zin Zin and her husband, as well as three of my students that had volunteered to help with the cooking the night before as well as during the event. I was incredibly touched that they wanted to be a part of something that would support the continuation of the classes. It showed me it was important to them too. We sat at the front of the room and I had each of them introduce themselves, with the help of Zin Zin’s translation, and share something they had learned from the classes. Then I opened the room up for questions.
One person asked about the different regions in Burma and Zin Zin’s husband gave a rich explanation of the diverse climates, cultures and cuisines that composed the landscape. The students shared a little bit about the differences they had to adjust to when coming to the US, including shopping in supermarkets and learning how substitute some of the foods they couldn’t find here. There were many more questions that could have been asked, but at this point I was aware some people were ready to go home. Nonetheless, I was glad we squeezed it in, especially when Zin Zin told me the next day that one of the students had told her she was thankful for having the opportunity to speak during the discussion panel. The student felt nervous beforehand, but afterwards felt proud and confident that she was able to communicate with so many Americans, in Burmese nonetheless.
I couldn’t have made the event happen without the help of the community. Zin Zin made the event possible by leading the cooking operations and accurately predicting how much food we would need to feed 50 people. Volunteers that had helped me with childcare in past classes stepped up and agreed to help with food prep, serving dishes during the dinner, and cleaning up. PMW let me use whatever materials for serving food they happened to have lying around. One of my friends who works for a catering company got me a major discount on the warming trays and other rentals that were needed. One guest generously donated eco-friendly bowls made of palm leaves that were used to serve the Mohinga. And the owner of the Mango House building let me use the Community room for free. I am so grateful to everyone who got involved and to the guests that pre-ordered tickets and helped spread the word for the event. Seeing it all come together that night, after weeks of marketing and preparation, felt like a miracle.
The Value Beyond the Profit
Burmese Food Culture Night turned out to be a success. Our guests left happy, full, and with slightly more understanding of Burmese culture than they arrived with. I originally aimed to sell 30 tickets and we ended up selling 36. We fed 55 including the volunteers and participating students. We did make a profit, although it was not quite as much as we had hoped, it was pretty close and it was certainly enough for Zin Zin and I to commit to running a second series of nutrition classes. We calculated that most of our expenses came from buying the serving platters and utensils and that the next time we did it our profit margin would be a lot higher because we would be able to reuse most of them. We also reflected on how we could do things more efficiently and eco-friendly next time. The fact that we were talking about a next time was enough to make me feel like it was all worth it.
I came to recognize the above were only the surface successes. Beneath them were silent and subtle successes that carry potential to ripple creativity and cross-cultural exchange. There is a growing community of about 4,000 Burmese refugees living in Aurora within the 50,000 refugees that have come to Colorado over the last 35 years. These people fled from traumatic and often life-threatening situations, but they also left behind normal lives. Many of them had middle-class and sometimes prestigious jobs, but here they arrive to find few options outside of menial labor.
During my time at PWM I met a Congolese refugee that was a brain surgeon, and is now trying to get his English level high enough to be a nurse’s assistant. Zin Zin’s husband studied computer engineering and worked for several government institutions during his time in Malaysia; now he works in a factory to make electrical parts. In contrast, most refugees I met living in Aurora work in a meat packing plant in Greeley, and carpool two hours every morning just to go to work.
One of my mentors who travels the world teaching social permaculture, Pandora Thomas, practices the philosophy “the problem is the solution.” She applied this theory when she was appointed to tackle the ongoing issue of people getting caught in the prison system, and often ending up back in prison after being released. By looking at them as the solution, she realized they could meet a growing demand for permaculture landscapers, gardeners and consultants with proper training. This practice can be applied to any social “problem.” With parts of our Earth in crisis and a rising need to accommodate refugees in stable countries, we need to start welcoming them with open arms and an open mind that celebrates the gifts they bring to add to our society.
In recent decades many citizens of the US have come to recognize the shortcomings of our food system and several movements are underway in attempt to remedy issues of public health and food justice. Progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go. We have started to demand better food quality and transparency in food production. However, too many people still face food insecurity, and healthy food is too often a privilege instead of a right readily accessible to the general public. We have a broken food system that still puts too much control at the mercy of corporate interests instead of in the hands of everyday people.
We need more hands. We need more hands to grow sustainable food, to sell food at local farmers markets and to cook wholesome food in cafeterias. More hands are here to help: refugees, immigrants, and unemployed youth. Unfortunately, many of their skills are overlooked and ironically redirected to industries like conventional meat production plants that exacerbate the issues of our food system. Beyond the contribution of their hands we need their experience, their innovation and their wisdom.
Zin Zin is only one example of someone who has brought with her the skill set and willingness to make her new community a richer place. She wants to open the first Burmese restaurant in Denver, and I believe that she will. The food industry is often one of the first service industry that refugees and immigrants can break into. For example, the Ethiopians were the first major wave of refugees to come to Denver 35 years ago and now a drive down East Colfax will show their significant impact on the restaurant industry.
Zin Zin is a community leader. If we invest in people like her they can help others around them find opportunities to get out of the refugee menial labor track. I noticed Zin Zin’s affinity for entrepreneurship within the first few weeks of knowing her. She was full of ideas on how to make money through her passion for cooking. I had the privilege to help her make one of those ideas come to fruition: The Burmese Village Recipe Booklet. She gathered 20 of her favorite recipes which I then helped her translate and edit, and then my wife designed it. She insisted that we sold the book as a joint venture. The booklets were sold for $10 at a summer festival and included them in the ticket price of the Burmese Food Culture Night. For every $10 my wife and I earned $2, and she kept the remaining $8. Of course, I was willing to let her keep all the profit, especially for the first year or so until it started bringing in significant profit. But she did not want charity, she wanted partnership.
Turns out we make pretty good partners. And to be honest I was willing to give more of my time to working with her because we were operating as business partners than had I just been helping her out of the goodness of my heart. I never viewed our relationship as giver-receiver or teacher-student. Instead, I saw us as co-teachers when we led the nutrition classes and business partners when we designed the recipe booklet and organized the Burmese Food Culture Night. Our relationship became dynamic and we both learned a lot from each other. Charity can be necessary, but sometimes I believe it puts a limiting filter on the kinds of relationships built between locals and recent immigrants.
Again, the problem is the solution. If refugees flooding our cities in high numbers is viewed as a problem, it can be transformed into a solution for many of the crisis we face. Repairing our food system is only one example, gaining momentum in the alternative energy sector can be another. All of these problems are ones faced by all of humanity right now. If we involve more of the hands, minds, and hearts, arriving through our borders, in the effort to innovate and work to overcome these global challenges, we will have a much better chance at solving them. This can start on an individual basis by each and every one of us getting to know the refugees or immigrants in our neighborhood. When we meet them with curiosity instead of suspicion, hope instead of resentment, and partnership instead of charity, many of them will become dedicated stewards of their new home.