I don’t think I realized Ecuadorian food was my favorite kind of food until I went to study in Seattle. I finally understood why people say that the food is one of the main reasons you start to feel homesick. It’s a daily reminder (or hourly, if you snack a lot like me) that you’re not home. You begin to crave foods you didn’t even know you needed so much... the day I find good bolón in Seattle I will be complete again. You can skype family and friends back home, you can find places that remind you of places you miss, but you can’t recreate the rich flavor of your grandma’s cooking.
Trust me on this one, I’ve tried.
So, what can you do about it?
1. Try the popular “American food.”
Coming to study in the U.S., I already had certain expectations for American food. I pictured: burgers, fried foods, greasy dishes, sugared drinks, and very large portions. I knew people loved their In-n-Out and bagels were important. The problem is that even this meant that I was making certain judgments before I even arrived. Burgers really taste different everywhere you go, and I didn’t even know blueberry bagels were a thing.
The truth is, if you want to avoid greasy American food, you can find healthier options as well. In a city like Seattle, I’ve noticed there’s a lot of support for local businesses and organic, healthy eating habits. Just as with any country, we can’t simplify “American Food” to McDonalds.
I wasn’t wrong to think a lot of the food was greasy, but I was wrong to think that was all. The bigger issue for me was always the portion sizes. It took a conscious effort and the gym to stay fit once I started getting used to the big portions served at the cafeteria. But, in any case, there are so many people from different cultures that even if you want nothing to do with American food, you will find all sorts of restaurants. Which leads me to my next point—
2. Try new dishes.
I know—the most generic answer, but there’s a little twist. Ask other students what places they recommend in the area that serve food from their home countries or cultures. This is different from simply going to the most popular food places. I’ve found that asking people who actually know what the food is supposed to taste like leads to far better options. Whatever has five stars on Yelp is obviously tempting, but by asking people what tastes like genuine Indian food, or genuine Chinese food, instead of Americanized versions of their dishes, you will find the hidden gems.
The only issue I’ve found with this is that it might be harder to get to such places. For example, I’ve found that I really like Korean food, but the best Korean food is supposed to be a 45-minute drive away. However, this also ended up making me the person that starts plans in the friend group. We got to drive together to get Korean BBQ for lunch on a special occasion, but we also found a lot more good places closer to us, in the International District.
If you’re going to study in the U.S. that must mean you are open to new experiences, so don’t limit yourself by sticking to the food you know you like. Try things you haven’t.
The next issue that could happen, however, is more on the money side. How can you afford to eat out and try so many different places?
3. Happy Hour isn’t just for drinks!
I only took advantage of this once I turned 21 and one of my friends who doesn’t drink proposed going to happy hour together. “Angel,” I reminded her, “You’re allergic to alcohol. What are you talking about?” She simply laughed and showed me the menu online: $3 Tacos? It was life-changing.
College students have that constant struggle of wanting to save money but not wanting to miss out on fun times with friends. Happy Hour was the Happy Medium Solution. If you find the right places, there will be something good for everyone, whether you drink or not. Besides, the times are usually appropriately early to go right after class but be back early enough to do your work afterwards. And, a lot of places will also serve late-night happy hour.
Places that serve boxed sushi or pastries such as muffins, which would not be good and fresh the next day, tend to have discounted prices right before closing time. Look for these as well.
4. Make it yourself.
Another option that is both pretty obvious and will save you money is this simple: try and make it yourself. This gives you a chance to call family back home to ask for recipes and instructions as well as share a part of your culture with friends or acquaintances. Moreover, if your school has these sort of cultural events, volunteering to cook dishes from your home country is a good way to introduce yourself and meet new people. My first year in college, some of the Japanese exchange students threw a sushi-making party right before they had to go back home, and I still remember how special and fun that was.
And, just in case you realize some of the spices or things you need aren’t available or are hard to find in the U.S., my last tip is...
5. Bring what you can.
Consider bringing some things in your suitcase. The airport I fly from Ecuador to the U.S. sells frozen yucca bread, and while I never tried bringing it, plenty of my classmates did. I usually brought Ecuadorian chocolates and cookies to share, and one of my friends had a whole stash of Taiwanese sweets in her kitchen. Bring what you can; it’s very comforting to eat something that reminds you of home when you start getting stressed, even if it’s as mall as a coconut cookie. And, that cheap cookie will seem very special to someone who has never tried it before as well.
Food can bring us together. Looking back on my experiences as a student, it’s amazing how many of my memories include sharing meals with friends. Cooking together, finding new places, or even just ordering takeout from the place that just opened up around the corner will become memories you can treasure later on.