Cooking program gives people a taste of different cultures | Michael Hastings: Food Columnist

Cooking program gives people a taste of different cultures | Michael Hastings: Food Columnist

Papaya salad

Michael Hastings/Journal

A recent YMCA program is giving area residents a taste of different cultures.

On Nov. 20, the YMCA’s literacy program held its second cooking class featuring students from its ESL classes.

Three female immigrants from the Karenni region of Burma held a cooking class in the kitchen of Knollwood Baptist Church for about 15 people. The program previously held a Syrian cooking class at Kernersville Moravian Church.

“These women are also in RISE (Refugee and Immigrant Society of Entrepreneurs), which teaches job skills,” said Julie Tomberlin, the director of the YMCA’s Literacy Program. “And 100 percent of the money (minus food costs) goes to the chefs at these classes.”

The classes are open to the public. The cost for the most recent class was $30.

Karenni, also called Kayah State, is a mountainous region in Burma that borders Thailand to the east. It is home to several ethnic groups who distinguish themselves from other Burmese. The largest ethnic group is said to have come from Mongolia about 700 BC.

The Karenni who led the class were Ku Mo, Sisi Lyar and Beh Meh.

Ku Mo and her family were run out of her village by Burmese soldiers when she was 12, and she grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand. The other two women also spent years in refugee camps before coming to the United States through the organization World Relief.

“This food I’m cooking is really Thai,” Beh Meh said, because most of her life was spent in a Thai refugee camp until she came to Winston-Salem six years ago.

The menu at the class included a spicy papaya salad with rice noodles and sticky rice, fried egg rolls and fried rice.

The egg rolls were very similar to Thai fried spring rolls, but with rice noodles, potatoes and onion for the filling.

The papaya salad included papaya, carrot, eggplant, long beans, peanuts, garlic, dried shrimp, salted crab, fish sauce and chiles. Beh Meh made it a couple of different ways, with one and two chiles. “But for us, we use five, six, seven chiles,” she said with a smile.

The fried rice combined onion, garlic, egg, chicken and mixed vegetables.

The class was very hands-on so everyone was able to help make all three dishes and to interact with each of the Karenni cooks.

Tomberlin said that the classes have several purposes. “They help the students practice their English, they help them make some money, and they let them share their culture with the community,” she said.

Beh Meh, a young woman who has three school-age children, said she is learning to cook professionally. Three weeks ago, she started a job with Aramark food-service company at Wake Forest University.

One day, she’d like to open a Burmese restaurant in Winston-Salem. “That is my dream,” she said.

Tomberlin said that the Y is planning more cooking classes. “We are always looking for churches and other groups to donate use of their kitchen space.”

Starting in January, Southern Home and Kitchen will be donating its kitchen for three of these classes, including another class on Karenni cooking. The schedule includes Ethiopian cuisine at 5 p.m. Jan. 13, Syrian cuisine at 5 p.m. Jan. 20, and Karenni cuisine at 5 p.m. Feb. 3. Registration for those classes can be done online at

For more information about the literacy program and its cooking classes, call Robinhood Road Family YMCA at 336-251-1090 or send an email to [email protected]

[email protected] (336) 727-7394

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