Each year, hundreds of refugees fleeing war, persecution and violence arrive in Denver looking to start a new life. Many of those are Burmese (more than 3,000 since 2007, according to Project Worthmore), including Zin Zin, a talented cook who has partnered with Denverite Marin Toscano to help other refugees adapt to life in a new country. Toscano founded Fooition (a combination of food and intuition) to help teach nutrition to those unfamiliar with Western foods and grocery stores, and Zin Zin has joined her to present cultural dinners that raise money to fund the classes. Since there are currently no Burmese restaurants in the Denver area, Zin Zin's Burmese Village dinners are a rare opportunity to enjoy unique food while helping a worthy cause — and even to assist Zin Zin with the goal of opening her own restaurant.
The most recent Burmese Village dinner was held on Saturday, July 23, at the Mango House in Aurora, a resource center for refugees that offers space for education, medical offices, religious groups and other services. Some forty guests enjoyed a five-course dinner prepared by Zin Zin, along with cooking demonstrations and other Burmese cultural presentations.
Burmese cuisine differs from other culinary styles in Southeast Asia because of its proximity to India and its strong Buddhist influence. Burma (named Myanmar by the military dictatorship that took over in 1989) has dozens of distinct ethnic groups and geographical zones, so the cuisine is equally diverse, but common elements include the use of fresh herbs, seafood and abundant produce — all of which featured prominently on Zin Zin's menu.
Spring rolls were bright and crunchy with stir-fried jicama, cilantro, bean sprouts, egg and shrimp, served with a side of date-chili sauce — a recipe Zin Zin created to eliminate processed sugar in favor of naturally occurring sugars. Uncommon ingredients in other dishes included banana stem in a fish soup called mohinga, opo squash in a chicken stew, pennywort cooked into a peppery summer soup, shredded green mango (as opposed to green papaya in Thai salads), and fermented tea leaves in an after-dinner salad. A dessert made with puréed black rice, coconut milk and ghee combined the texture of a chewy fudge brownie with the distinctly Indian flavor of clarified butter.
Zin Zin hopes to open her own restaurant and has self-published a recipe book, also called Burmese Village, that she sells for $10 each to help fund her goal. Although the restaurant is just in the planning phase, she has already talked to government agencies and restaurant organizations to learn about financing and assistance available through various resources.
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The next Burmese Village dinner will be held on September 17; tickets are not on sale yet, but here are a few pictures from the most recent dinner to give you an idea of what's in store. The dinner was sponsored in part by Geotech, which provided food-service equipment for the event, and Aurora Health Access.