By Barbara Gaynes
Jiaao Xue, a Chinese native studying at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has a special remedy for those inevitable bouts of homesickness. When he’s missing his family’s home-cooked meals, he heads to the Chinese restaurant near campus.
“I come from Beijing, the northern part of China,” he says, “and the owners of this restaurant also come from northern China. Therefore, I feel like being home again every time I go there. I like the food so much.”
Food is a traditional source of comfort, so it’s no surprise that students far from home may crave the tastes and smells of familiar dishes.
Mohammed, an Iraqi native who studied at a university in Minnesota, told the Voice of America that he didn’t realize “how badly I would miss my mother’s dishes and how food would be a huge part of my culture shock.”
“Oh, man, I miss my mom’s delicious white spicy rice!” he said.
Unfortunately, authentic foreign cuisine can be difficult to find at some American colleges and universities. Campus dining options may be limited to fast-food staples, and ingredients common in some countries may be unavailable in parts of the U.S.
Some campuses, however, put a priority on making international students feel welcome by incorporating recipes from their homelands into the dining-hall menus.
At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where 3,350 international students from 133 countries were enrolled last year, dining-hall employees start planning menus in July to satisfy the needs — and tastebuds — of the students who will arrive in the fall.
“The university will send us the numbers of kids coming from certain countries, and we choose our recipes accordingly,” Gina Guernsey, manager of the Selleck campus dining hall, said in an interview with The Daily Nebraskan.
Some of the international dishes campus cooks have prepared in past years include feijoada, a Brazilian stew made of black beans and meat, and halal chicken shawarma.
Every new dish goes through a taste-testing phase, dining staff member Brian Sabatka said, and some of the more popular ones have come from recipes that students have suggested once they’ve been on campus for a few weeks.
Meals from all over the world — including China, India and Oman — have been added to the menus.
“An Indian student brought in a recipe for Subju, and it is a favorite among [Indian students] now,” Sabatka told the Daily Nebraskan.
Learning new recipes from students is always enjoyable, he explained, even if the dishes are not among his personal favorites
“It’s weird because sometimes we don't like the things they do,” he said. “I once made a gelatin dish that I personally didn't care for. The Chinese students loved it though.”
Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, is another institution where international students have helped influence the menus on campus.
When Jasir Mayat, a student from Pakistan, first arrived, he found that the campus dining halls had few halal options for Muslim students. This changed, he said in a U.S. News & World Report interview, after he brought it the attention of the school’s Office of Dining Services. Staffers worked with Mayat to survey Muslim students to find appealing foods that met their dietary needs. Within weeks, more halal dishes were added to dining-hall menus.
Pleased with the university’s response, Mayat encourages international students at other schools to follow his example.
"Take charge and take action, and I am sure universities worldwide will be more than happy to, at the very least, have that conversation with you," he said.
Sumanth PV, who grew up in Hyderabad, India, and studied computer science at Wichita State University in Kansas, also has advice for prospective international students regarding meals: Expect to have food cravings, he says, and prepare to satisfy them by learning a few favorite recipes before leaving home.
“Try helping your mom in the kitchen because you’ll miss her cooking!”