Courtesy of Maya Kadouh/MiC.

To experience culture is a beautiful thing. For me, it has been a way to connect with my roots and engage in a number of different traditions made by and for people who look like me. If someone were to have asked me a couple of years ago what my favorite aspect of my culture was, I would have said music. I have always had a deep admiration for the way my people can use rhythms, harmonies and lyrics to evoke emotion in an audience. However, as I am approaching post-grad adulthood, my outlook has started to shift. Since I will soon have the responsibility of preparing all of my meals, the idea of cooking has been weighing more heavily on my mind. Because of this, when I reflect on my experiences with my culture, I am more likely to do it through the lens of food and cooking. This has caused me to realize the role that food has played in my interactions with my culture.

I come from a family that likes to eat, so by extension, we have always valued the ability to cook. Some of my favorite family memories involve helping to prepare food: whether it be baking the sweet potato pie, helping to season the chicken before it gets fried or slow cooking the collard greens. And, as one can imagine, eating was just as enjoyable. In these cases, eating this food is an embrace of the time I spent, and my family spent, to craft it, and it is a means through which I bond with my community. From random Sunday dinners with my parents and siblings to a Thanksgiving celebration with my extended family, I have gained a greater sense of appreciation for the ways in which food has served as a pinnacle of culture and connection in the Black community.

My upbringing cultivated a love in me for my culture, as well as a curiosity for other cultures, which I brought with me to college. Being at the University of Michigan, I have been exposed to more cultures and more opportunities to learn about them than ever. The University of Michigan provides different ways for me to develop this knowledge, whether it be through classes or student organizations. However, given the self-proclaimed “foodie” status I earned throughout my upbringing, with a photo album in my camera dedicated to food pictures as proof, my first instinct was to get a taste of these different cultures. I decided to explore the restaurants on and near campus that are inspired by different places around the world. I have since made a tradition out of going out to experience food from these places when I am looking for exposure to different cultures. In honor of this tradition of mine, and the joy it brings me, I want to share some of my favorite places so far. 

Frita Batidos: This campus favorite is located near Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown district. Michigan native Eve Aronoff Fernandez opened this Cuban street food eatery as a love letter to the Cuban culture that she was immersed in when she would visit her grandmother in Miami as a child. She became a chef for dinners with family and friends first, which led to restaurant jobs before opening a place of her own. As someone who has been to Frita’s countless times, I can say that the decor greatly reflects the family-style atmospheres that inspired the creation of this restaurant. The fairy lights and white picnic tables create the perfect ambiance for a “family dinner” amongst friends. Nonetheless, the restaurant still possesses an air of sophistication. The same things can be said about the food. As the name, “Fritas” (burgers) and “Batidos” (tropical milkshakes) are the main attraction here. The casual nature of this food makes it clear why it is called street food. Yet, one bite of the warm and savory Frita and one sip of the rich and sweet Batido makes it obvious why this place is not only my favorite restaurant near campus but the favorite of so many others. If you’re checking out this eatery for the first time or looking for something new, I suggest the chicken or fish Frita with a passionfruit Batido — my classic order.

Jamaican Jerk Pit: Jamaican native Robert Campbell runs Jamaican Jerk Pit, which is conveniently located on South Thayer Street. If the name doesn’t give you enough clues, the decor makes it undeniable what Campbell and his eatery are serving up: authentic Jamaican plates. When I walked inside for the first time, a sea of bright colors caught my eye: greens, yellows and reds to be exact, and a multitude of different countries’ flags — most notably Jamaica’s. However, Jamaican Jerk Pit serves more than just Jamaican food. They prepare dishes from all the Caribbean islands. Despite having a menu with several quality options, including oxtails, I am guilty of getting the same thing every time I come: the Jerk Chicken Pasta. With that being said, I have been to events that served Jamaican Jerk Pit’s plantains, and it’s safe to say that my love for the dish grew from there. The restaurant as a whole honestly never disappoints. 

Jerusalem Garden: This restaurant has a heartwarming story to complement its delicious food. Ribhi Ramlawi was born in a village near Jerusalem in 1934 and founded Ann Arbor’s Jerusalem Garden in 1987 using severance pay from his former job. Fast forward 44 years and his family-run restaurant is beloved by many in the Ann Arbor area, making it clear that his investment was worth it. This place sticks out in my mind — and my taste buds — because it is where I tried falafel for the first time. Up until being introduced to Jerusalem Garden, falafel was a dish that I had constantly heard about but never had the opportunity to try for myself. This restaurant is also one that I will never forget because Middle Eastern food was not a type of food that I would have ever thought to put on my list to try, just due to the fact that I had never been properly introduced to it, but I am extremely glad that I did.

Cuppy’s Best Soul Food: This restaurant has a special place in my heart. The only time I have traditional Black American cuisine on campus is when an event is catered by Cuppy’s. Eating their food always makes me feel like I am at home, and when I looked into the restaurant’s origins, it made sense why I feel that way. The founders of the establishment, Andrea “Cuppy” White and Joseph Jones, started this restaurant from their homes, where they would offer catering services to small events in the area. They would also cook meals for people on the weekends. When their homemade cuisine gained traction, they were able to buy a building and turn their passion into a full-scale business. Unlike the other spots that I recommend, which are located in Ann Arbor, this restaurant is located in Ypsilanti, but the opportunity to have a plate full of fried chicken, candied yams and collard greens makes the drive worth it.

Tea Ninja: I think one of the biggest (life-changing!) discoveries that I have made since coming to college is how good bubble tea, the traditionally Taiwanese drink, is. I may have tried it once before when I was younger, but having access to multiple places on campus expanded my love for the drink tremendously. When Bubble Island was still around, I would make it a point to get a Mooberry Tea with tapioca pearls and a Mango Mochi ice cream whenever it was warm outside (and sometimes even when it was cold). With Bubble Island unfortunately closing during the pandemic, I have used this year to experiment with new campus boba spots and new bubble tea orders. I have been consistently going to Tea Ninja because it was recommended by many boba tea lovers like myself. Like most boba places, it is a reliable place to go for a Classic Milk Tea or a Mooberry Tea (strawberry milk tea). As far as experimenting, Tea Ninja offers a load of creative flavors, including the “Brown Sugar Creme Brûlée with Milk” tea which is absolutely phenomenal. When it comes to sweetness levels, many bubble tea places give customers the option to adjust how sweet the drink is to fit their personal preferences. Given my insatiable sweet tooth, I usually get one of the highest sweetness levels they offer, but it all depends on the drink. I am on a mission to find the perfect sweetness level for each drink I get.

As I take on my last year of college, I have embraced my affinity for trying different cultural foods. I have let my adventurous eating inspire parts of my senior year bucket list. At the top of my list is trying Blue Nile, an Ethiopian restaurant on East Liberty St. With its plethora of vegetarian options, and the experience of eating with your hands that is not found often in Ann Arbor, it is a place I have been yearning to try, as I’ve heard endless positive reviews from family. Another place on my list is Slurping Turtle, which is brought up, without fail, anytime I tell someone that I like to eat Japanese food. 

My food-tasting tradition stems from more than just my foodie nature and my desire to get a break from the dining hall. For me, trying foods from different parts of the world has served as one way to appreciate various cultures in a way that is respectful and engaging. It has also inspired me to learn more about these cultures outside of their culinary traditions. For example, while working toward my fluency in Spanish, learning about the Cuban origins of Frita Batidos has inspired me to take Spanish classes that not only teach the language, but also focus on the culture of Spanish-speaking countries. Also, given that Jamaica is a prominent part of the African diaspora, I have recently developed an interest in understanding the similarities between Jamaican cultural history and African American cultural history. All in all, using food as a form of cultural exploration has been satisfying to my stomach as well as my soul, and I plan to keep the tradition alive wherever I find myself after graduation. 

MiC Columnist Kayla Thomas can be reached at kaythom@umich.edu.