They make food connections that stir memories at UMBC

With dishes, students of different cultures share a taste of home


Mashing her fist into a bright yellow bowl filled with masa, Diana Velasquez is about to take a group of fellow students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County on a trip back to her homeland - via some pastelitos.

"Try and do it like a circle," Velasquez, 23, says, patting down the dough with the palm of her hand on a table with pieces of diced onions strewn across it, along with juices that eked out of the chopped tomatoes. She's showing students of UMBC's Intercultural Living Exchange how to make the Honduran meat-stuffed pouches of dough she ate growing up.

In a kitchen more often littered with globs of cheese from Easy Mac packets or dried-up ramen noodles, the warm, homemade look of the pastelitos is a welcome change. From Spanish tapas to Chinese dumplings, foods from around the world are being introduced to students in this internationally focused residence hall, where students studying foreign languages live with mentors from abroad.

Being in charge of your own meals is a novel concept for many college students. For international or first-generation American students who don't always find familiar foods in the dining hall or local fast-food joint, it's a particular challenge.

On a polyglot campus, cooking traditional foods often becomes a way of bridging the miles and reconnecting to culture. Sharing those foods can be a way of expressing identity.

"It's reaffirmation of the connection with their home," says Richard Zimmer, a professor of anthropology with the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University in northern California. "People want to have association with things of the past [that] give them comfort."

Velasquez, assistant mentor of the Spanish-language group at the living exchange, misses the traditional foods she ate as a child in Honduras, and even later when her family moved to Silver Spring. She can re-create the tastes and the feelings of home by demonstrating her native cooking at the Wednesday night get-togethers where the exchange's students often share food.

"That's too much meat," she instructs one student. Some use delicate fingers to pat the dough; others have a full hands-on approach. The pudgy, orange creations are now set to be fried. Chatter in Spanish and French pops up from different corners of the room, accompanied by the sizzle of an oil-filled pan.

When asked what she hungers for from her native China, Chinese language group mentor Xiaonan Guo's answer is simple. "Everything."

The sauces aren't the same here, and the preparation is different, she says. Guo, 24, said even the Chinese restaurants here cater to American tastes.

When she moved to the United States, she found she needed to cook to get the taste of home. She found what she was looking for in a recipe book, on the Internet and through friends' suggestions.

As a first-generation American, Christine Shieh, 21, finds herself craving the white rice she ate with her family. Her parents moved to Gaithersburg from Taiwan, and she primarily ate Chinese food at home.

Away from home, Shieh sometimes has to settle for a cup of ramen noodles when looking for Chinese flavors.

For Velasquez, some tastes from Honduras never can be duplicated. Sopa de caracol, soup of snail, is one of those. The nutty-tasting soup made of shellfish and coconut milk is a traditional Honduran dish that she simply can't re-create at school.

Try as it might, the dining hall just can't cook international food that is authentic, students say. International students also get frustrated when others make incorrect assumptions about their food: that tacos are common in all Spanish-speaking countries or that Spanish food consists of only paella.

But even while others might be confused about their cuisine, students living with other students from around the world inevitably infuse home cooking with multicultural variations.

Elisabeth Arevalo-Guerrero, the mentor of the Spanish group - who began cooking as an undergraduate student in her native Spain - experiments with Pakistani-style chickpeas.

Arevalo-Guerrero's mother was a little dubious of her new take on the traditional ingredient when Arevalo-Guerrero mixed it with a prepackaged spice blend. Friends from Thailand, China, Japan, Brazil, Iran and Afghanistan also have contributed to the development of her cooking techniques. She incorporates cilantro and Mexican green tomatoes into dishes. She buys vegetables from a Korean market.

Velasquez's cooking has expanded as well. Cooking with Cuban and Colombian friends, she picked up a new way of preparing plantains. She now likes Italian food, too, and knows how to make Middle Eastern hummus. "You're exposed to more cultures here," she says.

Chicken wings, pizza, burgers and french fries top the list of foods Mougnyan Cox, 20, fell in love with when he moved to the United States from Gambia. He's on the university's meal plan but had to cook for himself during the winter break, when the dining hall was closed.

Despite varying cooking skills, everyone is ready for good food at the intercultural community's kitchen. The oil shines off the plump, golden-orange pastelitos. Books tossed aside for a moment, the students sit down for a hearty meal. Hands crisscross over and under each other as students grab for a deviled egg or a toothpick-pierced tortilla espanola, a Spanish potato omelet. Others take eager bites of the pastelitos served with pico de gallo, a mixture of tomatoes, onions and cilantro.

Here, foods from across the oceans have come together on this one table. Everyone knows the satisfaction of a delicious meal. "It always makes for good conversation, good bonding," says Stephen Mallary, 21, about coming together to share dinner.

Though Shieh is not sitting down to a meal traditional to her heritage, she acknowledges the power of food. For her, it is a "very real way to connect."

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