Although the growing Denver dining scene is getting more sophisticated, there are gaps in the culinary map that covers the metro area. Where, for instance, can a curious Denver diner sample Congolese saka madesu (cassava leaves with beans), mop up a saucy plate with Malian wejoula bread or finish a meal with chicory sukku coffee from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu? These questions and more are now being answered by Sanjay Rajan, an innovation strategist, sustainability consultant and home cook who moved to Denver last year and is developing Communal Platter, an online app and social enterprise that will connect chefs, hosts and diners with a social-media platform intended to build community through good food.
A native of Hyderabad, India, Rajan loves to cook and entertain guests in his home. Through his work and his involvement with the United Nations Association (he’s currently president of the Denver chapter), he’s made friends with home cooks around the world. Those contacts gave him the idea of building a platform where like-minded individuals can sign up to cook for a dinner party, host the party in their own home or simply pay to be a guest at the table. The concept for Communal Platter was simple, and sprang from other online marketplaces like Airbnb and Uber, only with a more organic model for growth and collaboration. To get Communal Platter started, Rajan has been recruiting friends and acquaintances from various backgrounds who have an interest in cooking for groups of up to fifteen or so — a number he feels is the critical level before a gathering goes from an intimate experience to a full-on party. “I want to try to get as many people from different diasporas engaged as possible,” he says.
So far, Communal Platter has brought together members at a half-dozen or so dinner parties, where the food has ranged from vegetarian Indian (Rajan is a vegetarian and cooked for that one), to Haitian, to the cuisine of several African countries. “Diversity is good,” Rajan explains, “and small is beautiful. Our motto is ‘Planet, people, prosperity.’”
At a recent Communal Platter dinner at Rajan’s home, the theme was Malaysian cuisine, as prepared by Musa Sapari, a native of Malaysia who moved to Hawaii when he was 25 and recently came to Colorado. Sapari studied economics while in college in his home country, but cooking has always been a part of his life, whether he was helping his family at home or working for a relative who owned a restaurant. He’s used to putting out big spreads; he’s the designated chef when he and his friends head out for weekend camping and rafting trips to whitewater destinations throughout the Rocky Mountain region.
Denver is currently home to two restaurants that serve Malaysian cuisine — Makan Malaysian (1859 South Pearl Street) and Jaya Asian Grill (1699 South Colorado Boulevard) — but Sapari prefers to cook dishes like satay, laksa and rendang himself, shopping at H Mart or Pacific Ocean Marketplace for hard-to-find ingredients. He says that both stores are well stocked with tropical fruit, galangal, rau ram and other herbs and spices he needs to make sauces and soups the traditional way; the only ingredient he’s been unable to find since moving here from Hawaii is ginger flower buds.
Sapari, now just shy of his fiftieth birthday, is skilled in the kitchen and comfortable around newcomers to his cuisine. Between courses, he describes the history of Malaysia, where the native cultures mingle with those of India, China and Thailand to create a diverse and vibrant cuisine. His father is over 100 years old, a fact that Sapari attributes to the region’s clean, naturally organic diet, which is heavy with pristine seafood.
Blazing-hot sambal, rich peanut sauce and a meatless soup broth all pack potent flavors derived from chiles, dried spices (some similar to Indian curries), galangal, ginger and tamarind. The chef has prepared each dish with meat-based and vegan options, so the satay is either chicken or tofu and the rendang (one of more than sixty rendang styles that vary from town to town based on Malaysia’s many ethnic groups) comes with either chicken or whole stewed mushrooms.
The dozen dinner guests converse in clumps while enjoying the food spread out on the kitchen’s island. Some are friends of Sapari’s or have met Rajan through work, while others are new to Communal Platter and just want to learn about Malaysian culture and food. But no matter what brought them to this dinner, they leave satisfied with the event — and hungry for more.
What Rajan is hungry for is cuisine that’s hard to find in Denver restaurants but will also shed a light on lesser-known cultures. He was pursuing the possibility of a dinner based on the food of Papua New Guinea when he met chef Godee Musangu from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who instead cooked for a Communal Platter meal from her country on May 20.
“There’s also an interesting cuisine called Balti,” Rajan says. “This is from the region of Baltistan that straddles India, Pakistan, China [and] Afghanistan.”
Communal Platter is currently in its pilot phase, so the dinner-party invitations are sent in the form of e-mails to those who’ve already signed up on the website communalplatter.com, but Rajan hopes to launch an app this summer that will give members many more options. For now, when you sign up with your name and e-mail address, you’ll receive a message each time a new dinner (or Platter, as they will be called on the app) is scheduled, usually about once a week. But when Communal Platter reaches a critical mass of members, Rajan explains, there will be too many scheduled events for e-mail to be an efficient means of communication. Instead, diners will be able to search the Communal Platter app by type of food, location (on a map with the Platters marked) and date, or they can just scroll through the list to find a dinner that sounds appealing.
Rajan wants people to be able to sign up for whatever level of participation they’re comfortable with; he doesn’t plan to take an active role in choosing cooks or hosts. If you want to cook, you’ll be able to specify the type of food, potential allergens and dietary-restriction issues, spice level and other details; you can choose to cook in your own home or work with someone who wants to host but not cook.
Hosts and cooks can indicate whether guests can bring alcohol or if the dinner will be booze-free; they might also invite kids to eat for free.
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For members who just want to dine, a complete menu will be provided before they pay in advance for a seat (to avoid no-shows), and Rajan says that recipes might even be provided at some point (if cooks are willing to share). Post-dinner surveys will help diners evaluate their experience and provide a level of quality control. So far, dinners have run $35 per guest, which Rajan says is enough to cover food costs while adding an incentive — which will be considered a “donation” — that he hopes will encourage recent immigrants who may be looking for additional sources of income to participate. Communal Platter will keep 10 percent of the ticket price for ongoing maintenance and development, an amount that won’t exactly make Rajan rich, but will allow him to keep the app going and continue to build a dining community.
Eventually, Rajan would like to include local businesses as part of the project, so that shoppers can get discounts on ingredients for Communal Platter dinners if they go to the right market, for example, or new food companies can introduce their products at the dinners. “I’m a big proponent of circular economy, partnering with local companies and businesses,” he says.
The real indicator of Communal Platter’s success will be when there are too many dinners scheduled for him to attend. In fact, he and his wife have decided on a goal that will test the app’s ability to spread communal dining throughout the metro area: On September 21, which the United Nations has designated as the International Day of Peace, Rajan hopes to see 100 Communal Platter dinners scheduled in Denver and the surrounding suburbs. It’s an ambitious goal — his wife initially suggested fifty, but Rajan said, “Why not 100?” — but Communal Platter’s membership is slowly growing, and the launch of the app later will provide an added springboard.
Rajan says he has counted more than 150 e-mail addresses in the system so far, and encourages current members to pass the URL on to friends and colleagues. Sign up at communalplatter.com — then get ready for a world of flavors to come your way.