Cultural Food Challenge

As we all know, the United States is known as ‘The Melting Pot’ of the world. Our country is home to over 300 million people, including countless immigrants and refugees from across Central and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. People from these cultures have flooded our cities with new and delicious cuisine with them.

Learning about these new cuisines has been central to my work with Heartland Health Outreach. As a dietitian focused on our refugee population, I am responsible for finding innovative ways for refugees to improve their nutrition.  I specifically work with the Burmese and Bhutanese populations, and soon, I will work with Congolese refugees as well.  Through my work, I have enjoyed learning about and trying new cuisines, and I’d like to share some recipes with you!

In order to add variety to your diet, I challenge you to try one of these new recipes and expand your cultural palette! Note: some ingredients will be new to you – at the very end of this post you will find a list of grocery stores that might carry some of the unique items.

A popular dish in the Burmese culture is rice noodles and fish soup (called Mohinga). There are many variations of this soup, but it is generally made with catfish and includes chickpea flour. Also of interest: it is commonly served for breakfast! The recipe below is a traditional recipe, but catfish can be replaced with any variety of freshwater white fish.  The ingredients with an asterisk can be omitted if they are too hard to find.


Chickpea Flour

Broth Ingredients
1 tbsp. coconut oil
1 shallot, chopped
1 tsp. fish paste
1 inch of a ginger root, chopped finely
10 cups water
2 whole catfish, heads separated
1 stalk lemongrass*
2 tbsp. chickpea flour*
1/2 tbsp. each fish sauce (or soy sauce) and tamarind paste*, more/less to taste
1 tsp. salt, more/less to taste

Main ingredients:
8 oz. rice noodles
4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced in half length-wise
Catfish, pan-fried
1 handful cilantro, finely chopped
1 lime


  1. In a stockpot, warm the coconut oil on medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add shallot and cook about 3 minutes. Add fish paste and ginger – cook another 3 minutes.
  2. Add fish and water to the pot. Make sure the water covers the fish. If it doesn’t, add more. Simmer until the fish is cooked through (starts to flake). Usually takes 10 minutes. Remove fish bodies to cool – keep fish heads in the pot.
  3. Remove the fish meat from the bones (keep bone structure in tact). Return bones to the pot and let simmer for 1 hour.
  4. While broth is simmering, prepare boiled eggs and rice noodles as instructed on package. You can usually dip rice noodles in boiling water for 3 minutes. Rinse in cool water and set aside.
  5. Take fish meat and lightly pan fry.
  6. Once broth has simmered for 1 hour, strain it and remove all solids (fish bones, etc.). Return to simmer and add fish sauce, tamarind paste, and salt. Squeeze a bit of lime juice in the broth.
  7. Once broth is to taste, dish out rice noodles into separate bowls. Add broth to cover, then add in boiled eggs, cilantro, and pan fried fish.

This recipe is a variation of the recipe found here.

Other spices that are commonly used and can be added to taste are turmeric, chili powder, and paprika. These can be added while the broth is simmering. Enjoy!


Bitter Melon

In Bhutan, it is all about the spice! This quote sums up Bhutan’s culinary philosophy well: “Chilies are not considered to be a seasoning, but a true and valuable vegetable”. Aside from spice, bitter melon (aka bitter gourd or bitter squash) with a high vitamin C and folate content, is a popular fruit in Bhutanese cuisine. Because of its bitter taste, the fruit is sometimes blanched in water before adding to recipes to reduce the bite. If you don’t want to blanch it, fresh lime juice produces the same effect.

Fun Fact: bitter melon, in place of hops, is sometimes used in Chinese beers for bittering.

The following recipe comes straight from the home of our very own Bhutanese health promoter, Uma Mishra. It is made to serve 2 – so double it if you want more. Warning: this dish is HOT! Trust me, I’ve tried it.

2 bitter melons, halved and sliced
1 potato, diced
2 red or green chilies, diced
1 onion, diced
4 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. cumin seed
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. curry powder
Fresh limes


  1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add cumin seed and cook until they start to sizzle. Add onion and chilies and cook until onion starts to brown.
  2. Add bitter melon and potato. Simmer and cover for about 2 minutes.
  3. Add turmeric and salt. Stir then cover for about 4 minutes.
  4. Add curry powder. Stir and cover. Check and stir occasionally until bitter melon and potato are cooked through.
  5. Add juice from limes to reduce bitterness as needed.

The oil and water from the fruit and potatoes should provide enough liquid to cook this recipe. You can add water as needed though if you feel it is necessary.

Popular in many countries, the cassava plant is a staple in the diet of many parts of Central Africa, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The plant has two parts: the root and the leaf. Cassava root is similar to a potato and has similar nutritional value. It is a starchy vegetable and usually eaten boiled or fried. When ground into flour, cassava root can serve many purposes. The most popular use is probably to make fufu – a starchy, dough-like substance typically eaten with soups or stews.

Fun Fact: you know the bubbles in tapioca pudding? Or those delicious bubbles in bubble tea you find all over Chinatown? Both come from the starch in the cassava plant!


Cassava Leaf

The leaf of the cassava plant is similar to spinach. It is green in color and is usually boiled to make stews. In terms of nutrition, the leaf contains multiple vitamins, calcium, and iron!

Here is a cassava leaf stew to try:

3 pounds frozen cassava leaves
1 ½ pounds beef, cut into bite size pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup ground dried shrimp
4 tbsp. peanut butter
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tbsp. soy sauce


  1. In large saucepan, season meat with salt, soy sauce, and onions. Cover with water and boil until tender. Remove from heat. Place meat on a plate and save the broth.
  2. In separate pot, bring cassava leaves to a boil. Add meat. Let simmer for 10 minutes stirring frequently. You may add some meat broth.
  3. Add onions, dried shrimp, and olive oil. Simmer for another 5 minutes.
  4. Add peanut butter. To taste: add more soy sauce, salt, and pepper.
  5. Serve warm. It is best served over rice or with fufu.

Boiled Cassava Leaves

This recipe is a variation of the recipe found here.

I hope you take my challenge to try one or all of these recipes soon! Below, please see the list of stores around Chicago that will carry some of the unique ingredients for your cooking!


Makola Supermarket
1017 W Wilson Ave
Chicago, IL 60640

Old World Market
5129 North Broadway Street, 1
Chicago, IL 60640

African Groceries & Art
722 E 79th St
Chicago, IL 60619

Hong Kong Market
2425 S Wallace St
Chicago, IL 60616

Joong Boo Market
3333 N Kimball Ave
Chicago, IL 60618

Indian Grocery & Imports
2610 W Devon Ave
Chicago, IL 60659


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