A Taste of Home: 'U' international students take a bite into Ann Arbor's multicultural cuisine

By Veronica Menaldi, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 24, 2011

When some students at the University get a hint of homesickness, they can easily drive an hour or so on I-75 and find themselves in the warm embrace of their former home — usually complete with home-cooked meals.

But for students hailing from other countries, skipping out to their childhood house for the weekend isn’t an option — after all, they’d have to board a plane for hours and fly over an ocean or two. Fortunately, Ann Arbor has the next best thing: meals that closely resemble hometown dishes of Central America, Europe and beyond.

LSA senior Amie Hsu said food is a common topic for the Conversation Circle she leads. The Conversation Circles Program was started by the International Institute at the University as an opportunity for international students to practice their English skills with native speakers, and Hsu has found that potlucks are often the best way to break the ice.

“Food is one aspect of culture,” she said. “I think it’s something that reminds them of home.”

Hsu said international food establishments in America don’t have quite the same foods that could be found in the country of a food's origin, but these state-side alternatives are beneficial for students who find themselves as fish out of water when they first set foot on campus.

Judy Dyer, English Language Institute Lecturer, agreed that food is an important link.

Since she has lived abroad for a number of years, Dyer understands the importance of the little things that remind her of home. When she taught in China, one of those things was a warm cup of coffee. In the rare moment she was able to acquire a cup of instant coffee — not quite the same as the real thing, but close enough — she was pleased.

This is analogous to an international student’s situation. Though the foods in Ann Arbor may not be exactly the same as they are back home, they’re similar enough to where most international students would be able to appreciate them.

“It’s an important component of that feeling of security, feeling of familiarity and finding a piece of home where you are making your home for the next few years,” Dyer said.

A home away from home

Architecture and Urban Planning student Ashwini Kamath was born and raised in India and came to Ann Arbor in 2008.

She said if she goes out to eat, one in three times it’s at an Indian restaurant. And if she’s doing the cooking, 95 percent of the time it involves Indian food like curry, rice and bread.

Indian food typically consists of Indian spices, herbs, vegetables and fruits. Kamath finds most of these ingredients from international Indian markets like OM Market on Plymouth Road and Bombay Grocers on Packard Street.

She said her most frequent purchases were dal (a type of lentils), egg curry and vegetables like bhindi (okra), potatoes and cauliflower.

Engineering graduate student Hatim Bukhari, an international student who came here from Saudi Arabia in 2006, also said he did a lot of home cooking.

He described typical Saudi Arabian food to be some type of meat combined with some kind of rice and certain spices, and condiments like cumin.

Bukhari buys some of his necessary ingredients at Arabic markets — there’s one located on North Campus called Jerusalem International Market. A few of the things he buys in such markets are tahini sauce, sumac, fava beans and different types of rice.

Typically, Bukhari prefers to cook at home rather than dine out.

“I feel like it’s better,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m a good cook, but the thing is, in restaurants you’re not going to find exactly what you want. You’ll find something similar, so that’s why I prefer to cook.”

An example of this is stir-fried liver. Though Bukhari thinks the meal turns out decent in restaurants, when he makes it himself, Bukhari knows it’ll turn out just the way he prefers.

Of course, not all connoisseurs of international cuisine were necessarily raised in foreign countries. LSA senior Alaina Moreno-Koehler grew up in the suburbs of Flint like many in-state students. But thanks to her father and grandparents back in Puerto Rico, she has enjoyed a great deal of Cuban culture at home. Moreno-Koehler recalled the delicious Cuban food her father would make when he returned home from work — her favorites include tostones (fried plantains), picadillo, Cuban sandwiches and paella.

Now that she’s living in Ann Arbor and no longer can depend on her father’s meals, she prepares Cuban food herself and occasionally eats out at Cuban-like restaurants. And since she doesn’t live too far away, she also has the luxury of being able to drive home if the food cravings are too much to control.

For the most part, her go-to meal to make is rice and beans, in addition to meals that require plantains.

Unfortunately for Moreno-Koehler, her ability to cook Cuban food has become more difficult since she decided to become a vegetarian. Thanks to her grandmother’s advice, she was able to come up with a few meals that incorporate beans, rice, eggplant and typical Cuban spices.

A common problem these students face arises from shopping at international markets — the prices of goods often change. Engineering graduate student Hyeon Joo, who came to Ann Arbor in 2009 from South Korea, said he enjoyed buying foods like kimchi, bulgogi, samsang, gochujand, fish and choco pie at Manna Oriental Market and Galleria Asian Market, but he was frustrated by the often-fluctuating prices.

The solution to this problem lies in a surprising location. Some international students found a wide availability of international foods in chain grocery stores like Meijer and Kroger, praising these big-box markets for their cheapness and proximity. Bukhari said he found most of his spices there, and Moreno-Koehler cited Meijer as a convenient place, since it was not as far and less expensive than a typical international food market.

There's no taste like home

Though these individuals enjoy and prefer eating their typical cultural foods, sometimes they can’t find the time to cook. The solution to this predicament is to go out to restaurants, usually ones similar to those found at home.

When Kamath goes out to eat, the spicier the food, the better. Her favorite Indian restaurants that fulfill this requirement are Shalimar Restaurant and Taste of India Suvai.

Where and what she chooses depends on her appetite: If she’s not particularly hungry, she’ll go for Southern Indian food, since it’s typically more snacky. But for dinner, she said she enjoys Northern and Southern Indian food equally.

Her typical meals at restaurants are chicken tikka masala (a curry dish with chicken chunks), seekh kebab, dal and naan (a leavened oven-baked flatbread).

Still, these restaurant's takes on dishes do not quite resemble the ones in her native India.

“It’s the best of what we can get here,” Kamath said. “I think it has to do with the palate here. Sometimes it won’t be really spicy. They kind of alter the spices to make sure it’s not too spicy or too bland.”

Moreno-Koehler had the opposite reaction to the restaurants of Ann Arbor in regards to their spice level. She said many of the Latin restaurants on campus, particularly Cafe Habana, are a fusion of a few Latin cultures, which results in a hybrid flavor not completely familiar to her.

“It’s as authentic as you can get in Ann Arbor, Michigan,” Moreno-Koehler said. “They do a lot that’s authentic, but it’s meant to be a fusion of things, so some of the stuff is spicy. Cuban food isn’t spicy necessarily; our spices are for flavor not for burning your tongue off.”

She added: “They’re pandering to a customer base that doesn’t know that and expects Mexican-style spicy.”

Cross-culture eating

A main difference Joo found between meals in Ann Arbor compared to those found in his home country is the amount of food served. When he first arrived in America, Joo said he could barely finish a full meal since the American portions were so large. Though the taste of the food was comparable to that of his native Korea, the larger bowls and plates he encountered were unfamiliar.

But some students have grown used to the American way of life. Engineering sophomore Ken Ling was born in China and grew up with a variety of Chinese food. Ling called Panda Express and other “Americanized Chinese restaurants” not as authentic or “attractive” since their meals are tailored more to American taste buds.

Ling usually likes to go to Great Shanghai, Asian Legend, Evergreen Restaurant, Asia City, Middle Kingdom and Chia Shiang Restaurant for their authenticity. However, he admitted he still goes to Panda Express from time to time.

Dyer has noticed this shift in mindset. She has seen her international students gradually incorporating some of the food customs native to America in their daily lives, be it a cup of coffee in the morning or fast food.

“They’re adapting a whole new food culture while they’re here,” she said. “They’re being acculturated into our American way of eating.”

Ultimately, food’s most important aspect is its communal quality. Dyer has had many potlucks with her students throughout the years and praises food’s capability to be shared.

“It’s not just sharing within your own culture, but sharing across cultures,” she said. “We’re actually very similar sometimes, so the whole act of sharing food is important.”