published Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Taste of home: International students look for reminders of home

International student Li Wang, a senior English major at Dalton State College, cooks a vegetable stew at her campus apartment. She learned to cook from her dad, who is a chef in China.
International student Li Wang, a senior English major at Dalton State College, cooks a vegetable stew at her campus apartment. She learned to cook from her dad, who is a chef in China.
Photo by Erin O. Smith.
  • photo
    International students at Baylor include, from left, Summer Tao from China, Priar Tapvong from Thailand, Irmak Pekbayik from Turkey, Julian Kochanowilz from Germany and Duong “Jon” Do from Vietnam.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

HOME COOKING MEMORIES

Dish I Miss the Most: Pastel.

“Pastels are a Brazilian street food delicacy — fried pastries filled with various savory fillings like cheese, chicken, shrimp, hearts of palm or ground beef. Pastel dough is crispier than empanada dough, more like a spring roll, and pastels are typically deep fried.

“These pastries have a creamy filling of cheese and chicken seasoned with tomato and onion. Corn, peas, carrots, olives,and hardboiled eggs are popular additions.

“It’s not that hard to find the ingredients [locally], especially in Mexican markets. Mexican food has some similarities with Brazilian food. Full meals are harder to find. There is an awesome Brazilian restaurant in Marietta, which is not that far away from Dalton. When I am really “foodsick,” me and the other Brazilians go to have lunch there.”

Favorite American dishes: Sweet tea and mashed potatoes.

— Clarissa Weber, Brazil, Dalton State College

•••

Dish I Miss the Most: Chinese hot pot.

“It began as a simple way of cooking meats and vegetables. The thinly sliced meat is dropped with some leafy vegetables into a bubbling soup contained in a specially designed pot. It is placed in the middle of the table for cooking and serving. After a minute or two, the food is cooked and is lifted out and eaten with a variety of dipping sauces. When all the meat and vegetables are finished, cellophane noodles are added to the broth, resulting in a wonderful fragrant and flavorsome soup.

“Platter after platter of beautifully arranged raw ingredients are brought, all cut to a size that allows them to cook easily and quickly in the broth.

“The ingredients include:

• Tissue-thin slices of tasty beef, chicken, or pork

• Shrimp, scallops, mussels

• Firm fish such as cod, catfish, tilapia

• Fish, shrimp, or beef balls

• Tofu

• Dry rice noodles

• Several kinds of fresh mushrooms

• Tender sweet pea vines

• Spinach, cabbage, lettuce

• Chinese watercress

“P.S.: when we have “’hot pot,’ we choose some of those ingredients, not necessarily all of them)

“It is really hard for me to find food that reminds me of home because the so-called Chinese restaurants in the USA do not offer authentic Chinese food but Americanized-Chinese food. It is hard to find the ingredients for cooking Chinese food. Sometimes, my friend and I drove to Atlanta to buy some Chinese ingredients for our cooking, which might sound a little crazy to my friends who live in China because it is very easy for them to buy ingredients.”

Favorite American dish: Broccoli salad.

— Li Wang, China, Dalton State

•••

Dish I Miss the Most: Swedish pancakes.

“Me, my sister and brother make them as often as we can for weekend breakfasts, and we have done so for years. Usually we take turns: One makes the batter, another fries the pancakes and the third sets the table and brings out toppings and juice.

“Swedish pancakes are like thin crepes and are made of eggs, milk, flour and a pinch of salt.

For me, it’s fairly easy to find groceries for any Swedish recipe. I even found a frozen meal of Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes and sauce at Walmart.”

Favorite American dish: Hash browns.

— Elsa Hellsten, Sweden, Dalton State

When Summer Tao wants a Chinese meal like the ones she ate back home, she goes to New York. She can't find anything here that compares.

"The Chinese restaurants here are not the same," she says. "They are more Americanized."

Duong "Jon" Do longs for a bowl of his mother's Pho, a national dish in his homeland Vietnam.

Irmak Pekbayik misses the large breakfasts she grew up eating in Turkey, meals that included tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, cheeses, jam, toast and honey.

"I also miss Turkish coffee," she says.

Julian Kochanowilz longs for a good schnitzel, and he misses the German breads that were part of every lunch and dinner.

All grew up outside of the United States, and all currently are students attending high school or college in the Chattanooga area.

When it comes to bringing back childhood memories or recreating a little slice of home, few things do so as well as a favorite meal or food item. Recreating Mom's apple pie or biscuits is tough enough, but it's even harder if you are in a foreign country with stores that don't stock what you need. The degree of difficulty climbs even higher when the pictures on the labels or the food on the plate look like nothing you've ever had before.

"We had a student from Croatia years ago who nearly starved herself because she didn't recognize anything in the cafeteria and she'd been taught to eat everything you put on your plate," says Baylor communication specialist Eddie Davis.

Baylor has a large population of international students who board at the school and represent almost two dozen countries. The school tries to accommodate the students, even arranging shopping excursions to specialty stores.

Schools like Dalton State College in North Georgia and Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., also have students on campus from foreign countries. The lucky few are able to find a restaurant that comes close to preparing a favorite dish from home; luckier still are the ones who have found a local market that carries items from home so they can cook themselves.

The first thing Oshae Peart eats when he visits his grandmother, who now lives in Virginia, is the jerk chicken like she used to make in Jamaica, where he grew up. When the Lee University senior visits his parents, who now live in Dubai, he goes for a shawarma, a wrap-like meal made with flat bread, meat, pickles, potatoes and garlic sauce.

Priar Tapvong, a junior at Baylor, has found both. A native of Thailand, she has found several dishes at Thai Smile downtown that come close to what she ate at home. Keyword is "close."

"I cannot find anything as spicy as I like it," she says.

Priar, along with schoolmates Duong, a sophomore, and Summer, a senior, have also made regular trips to the Asian Market on Hixson Pike to buy sweets, sodas, snacks and even ingredients to make their own dishes.

Duong likes to cook, and to share, and whenever possible does so for classmates in his dorm. One customer is Julian, whose face lights up when Duong was asked if he'd liked to share.

"Oh yeah!" Julian says.

A sophomore from Germany, Julian says he loves sampling his friend's Vietnamese dishes. One of the first Duong cooked, with help from the Baylor kitchen staff, was Pho, a noodle and meat soup that's a national favorite.

"I got pretty close to my mother's," Duong says. "It was not the same, but close. Something is missing."

He says he can find many of the ingredients he needs to cook, but they are rarely as fresh as at home and sometimes are even out of date.

"It is easy to find processed foods, though," he says.

It is a little easier for Julian since German foods are made from similar ingredients to those he can find in local groceries. How they are prepared, however, can be quite different.

"I haven't found anything here that is close," he says.

Irmak, a senior at Baylor, says her biggest adjustment coming here from Turkey was not having the familiar, voluminous breakfasts.

"I went hungry for awhile," she says.

But she has since discovered biscuits and gravy and grits, her new favorite American foods. Oh yeah, and chicken-fried steak and barbecue ribs.

Julian has discovered Mexican food, in addition to Duong's Vietnamese cooking. Duong loves a good Slushie, while Summer loves omelettes, and Priari has become a big fan of chicken noodle soup.

Peart's go-to American food is a Whopper from Burger King.

"That's my go-to food since I can't find good Jamaican food."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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