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Buffalo Without Borders gets a sweet tooth

For an event like the International Institute of Buffalo's fundraiser, Buffalo Without Borders, how do you appeal to the masses of Western New Yorkers who might be a little hesitant to embrace unfamiliar foods and forms of entertainment?

Well, chocolate is a good place to start.

From 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Hotel at the Lafayette (391 Washington St.), the fifth annual party will connect Buffalo's non-immigrant community with the wide range of cultures that have enriched our city over the last 10 years. Over 30 local businesses -- including established ethnic favorites like Sun Restaurant and Lucy Ethiopian Cuisine, as well as a less traditional chocolatier -- will serve food, provide entertainment and showcase their traditional wares in two ballrooms.

Over the summer, the IIB reached out to Ben Johnson, who runs the locally-based digital store Blue Table Chocolates, and encouraged him to collaborate with three West Side immigrant families to create chocolates that would best represent their native countries.

Johnson met with these families -- hailing from Iraq, Burma and Bhutan -- to weave traditional ingredients and designs into Blue Table Chocolate's hand-made delicacies. The results, which will be free to sample at Buffalo Without Borders, are one-of-a-kind:

Iraq -- Inspired by a variation of baklava, Blue Table's Iraqi chocolate includes pureed dates mixed with heavy cream, tahini for sesame undertones with white chocolate encased in a white chocolate shell. The result is a white and black chocolate that's symbolic of the country's flag.

Burma -- There's not a strong tradition of individual dessert foods in Burma, Johnson learned, and at the end of meals, eaters typically create their own course by snacking on smaller items like chiles, dates, ginger mix or wrapped bananas.

Not surprisingly, Johnson's Burmese-inspired chocolate blends several diverse ingredients: dark chocolate ganache, tamarind, hot chiles and coconut milk together inside a dark chocolate encasing. The green and red exterior resembles the Burmese flag.

Bhutan -- Given the strong Indian influence in Nepali-Bhutanese food, Johnson produced a chocolate based on kheer, the Nepalese rice pudding. For a close reproduction, the chocolatier sauteed rice in clarified butter (which would be ghee in traditional Middle Eastern fare), then added white chocolate ganache, golden raisins and cardamom.

Since the culture's religious elite dons orange robes, these pieces of chocolate are bright orange in color.

Kheer, an Indian rice pudding, inspired Blue Table Chocolate's Nepalese concoction. (Flickr / Priyata Books)

Kheer, an Indian rice pudding, inspired Blue Table Chocolate's Nepalese concoction. (Flickr / Priyata Books)

If there was one point of consistent feedback from the trio, it's that their cultures "like things much less sweet" than the chocolate that's obsessed over in America, Johnson remarked. The Iraqi baklava could be a slight exception, though.

Johnson created 630 bite-size chocolates for Buffalo Without Borders, and he'll sell six-piece boxes at Thursday's event for $9 + tax. These boxes can also be purchased at the International Institute of Buffalo offices (864 Delaware Ave.) or online through Blue Table Chocolates after the event. Profits will benefit the IIB.

Tickets for Buffalo Without Borders are $35 and can be purchased online here. Valet parking, available on the Washington Street side of the building, is included in the ticket price, as well as the food. A cash bar will be available, too. More information can be found at the International Institute of Buffalo's website.


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