Hang around the food vending machines in the basement of Campus Tower at Montgomery College in Rockville and watch -- and smell -- the world go by. Literally. The lunchtime scene at the machines is a pan-cultural gathering as many of the foreign students congregate there to warm their lunches in the microwave oven and supplement what they brought from home with sodas, potato chips, candy and occasionally juice, fruit or yogurt.
No peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for this international group. They pack their goodies in plastic containers, pop them in the microwave and stand around gabbing and gorging. The area sounds like the Tower of Babel and smells like a Hong Kong street market crossed with a Middle Eastern bazaar and a Latin American bodega.
A total of 3188 students from 130 countries attend not only the Rockville but also the Takoma Park and Germantown campuses of Montgomery College. And they naturally bring along preferences for the foods of their homelands, which the vending machines with their assortment of candy, chips, cookies, donuts and other non-foods cannot begin to accommodate. So most of them brown bag it.
The result is a competition between the Oriental aromas of Vietnamese cha gao, Korean chap chae and Japanese yakitori and the Spanish scents of El Salvadorean pupusas, Chilean emapanadas and Guatemalan black beans. And the outcome is a tie. All the foods smell equally appetizing, and, as I have learned from years of testing, taste equally wonderful.
Among my most pleasant duties as a professor at the college is teaching the upper level course in the English as a Second Language program. Since an interest in good things to eat seems universal, I usually ask my students to write their first essay about the most typical dishes of their countries. "Suppose I were visiting your native land," I suggest, "which dish would you tell me to be sure not to miss?"
Sometimes students balk at the assignment because they don't know how to cook, but I point out that most people know a little about the food traditions of their homelands and everyone has a favorite dish. It's a description I'm after, not a recipe. Even so, a Vietnamese student once wrote, "Cooking is not my pleasure" but "relying on my own taste is" and proceeded to include a detailed description and complete recipe for pineapple soup. Another young man, this one from Poland, described a popular dish he cooks because it requires no skill and barely any money: sauerkraut stew made with cabbage, mushrooms, wine and sausages. He claimed that since it tastes better the second day, the dish is unknown to Americans, because "nobody here wants to eat something which was fixed yesterday."
Discussion invariably turns out to be diverting as the students struggle with the hard-to-pronounce names of each other's national dishes and try to imagine the unfamiliar ingredients. But the real fun comes later in the semester when the students deliver their how-to-do-it "process analysis" speeches. Although some choose to show how to make a pinhole camera or how to wrap a sari or how to paint a ceiling, many of them decide to demonstrate the preparation of one of these typical dishes for the class. Of course, they pass around samples for everyone's delectation.
Students lug to class blenders, hand mixers, electric frying pans, pots, bowls, measuring cups, wooden spoons and ingredients ranging from seaweed to manioc to tahini. And though they feel nervous when they stand up in front of the class, many of them speaking English before a group for the first time, they find their audience attentive and interested and eagerly anticipating a taste of whatever exotic fare they produce. The young men in the class are particularly willing to try anything, but I have come to realize that their adventurous taste stems not from experimental natures but from an unsatisfied desire for something good to eat. Many of them are away from home for the first time and know nothing of cooking, some are short of money and others have found the U.S. to be fast-food heaven and have embraced the worst eating habits of their american peers.
In front of the class, some students, hands visibly shaking, fumble and spill oil and forget to add all the ingredients, but others put on skillful demonstrations that would satisfy Jacques Pepin or Julia Child. in the latter category is the preparation once demonstrated by a young nun from El Salvador. She chose to show the class how to make a sandwich -- what could be simpler or more obvious? -- and proceeded in the most elegant way to spread mayonnaise on white bread, lay on slices of meat and tomatoes, top it with lettuce leaves, cut it in half and slide it into a plastic bag to enjoy, she said, for her lunch. Her quiet demeanor and serious approach commanded the class' rapt attention and made that sandwich seem an exalted dish.
At Montgomery College, approximately 700 students represent Latin America and the Caribbean. Some want to demonstrate how to make pisco sours, pinna coladas or the fermented yucca drink named chicha that is popular in western Ecuador, but school regulations put those alcoholic drinks out of the question. Instead my classes have been introduced to the herb drink yerba mate.
An Argentine fellow once explained how sitting around the fire cooking a parillada, talking, drinking and playing the guitar promoted the gaucho tradition of camaraderie at the same time that he was demonstrating how to cook the barbecue
dish. Another lad showed how to cook carne asada, a skewer of barbecued beef and vegetables that he said is a "gastronomic Honduran dish." Empanadas (meat pies filled with cooked potatoes, ground beef, raisins, olives and hard boiled eggs) and papas huancaina (potatoes with cheese) from Chile, tortillas (flat corn flour pancakes), mole (an unsweetened chocolate and ground chile sauce) from Mexico and pabellon criolla caraquenos (a combination of rice, beef, black beans, fried plantains and cheese) from Venezuela are a few of the specialties my Latin American students have taught their teacher and their classmates to prepare.
Since many of the students hail from Asian countries (mostly Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea, China, India), each semester I get to sample Oriental dishes of every description. I tried steamed pork and green bean-filled sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves and tied with string. In Vietnam they have been a favorite for the lunar new year ever since they were created hundreds of years ago by a prince as a special way of honoring his elders. Because his father loved the cake, he ceded his throne to the prince. Made in a square shape, the package represents the earth, which, at that time, was believed to be square, and made round, it symbolizes the sun.
During the height of the immigration from Vietnam, I had my fill of cha gao, Vietnamese egg rolls, delicate rice paper-wrapped (moisten the ends with beer, one student suggested) and deep-fried bundles of meat and vegetables dipped in the aromatic fish sauce known as nuoc man. Long ago, it seems, the sauce was used to heal wounds. Cambodian egg rolls, I learned, are so difficult to prepare and so expensive because they are filled with lobster, shrimp and pork that they are rarely made at home and are reserved for weddings and other celebrations.
Challenged, the Chinese students choose to demonstrate their own dough-wrapper egg rolls served with hot mustard. One claimed they "taste very delicious, very brittle and their golden color makes people feel happy." Snow white chicken legs created from boned legs coated with bread crumbs, scallions, gingerr, eggs and cornstrch and deep friend, a student from Canton wrote, "taste crisp and loose." Though their grammar may be a little shaky and their vocabulary a little unidiomatic, most students have a charming way of getting across what they mean.
Thai students have showed how to make pad thai, one of Thailand's national dishes that is composed of noodles stir fried with eggs, vegetables and peanuts, and namprick curry. This dish of beef or chicken mixed with coconut milk, galanga, eggplant and bamboo shoots tastes hot and spicy and will make you perspire, the student warned. The recipe for the namprick, a seasoning sauce made from dried shrimp, soy sauce, ground chiles, garlic and lemon, has been popular for genertions, according to that student, and is handed down from mother to daughter. The curry is popular with "old" (read traditional) Thai people, she wrote, and -- surprise -- she said it is eaten with white bread.
The Indonesians introduce nasi goreng, a fried rice, meat and vegetable combination flavored with sweet, syrupy soy sauce, and chicken or lamb sate with peanut sauce. The skewered meat sate crosses all economic and class lines in Indonesia, it seems, appearing at official events and weddings as well as on restaurant menus and at street stands. One friendly Indonesian invited me to attend his father's 50th birthday party when I was in Jakarta, which I din. And while the suckling pig roasted in a pit in the backyard impressed me, most humbling was the realization that I recognized only one dish on the laden buffet table.
Japanese students, aware of the American craze for sushi, demonstrate the art of using a bamboo mat to roll vinegared rice and raw fish in shiny purple sheets of nori seaweed without having all the ingredients comome squeezing out the ends. And the Koreans, not to be outdone, illustrate their country's version of the same dish, called kimbob, made with meat and rice. A Korean student who talked about bin-dac-tug, said tht it is "almost like pizza but different in material and cooking method" and went on to describe a dish made of dried green peas, beansrouts, pickled cabbage called Kim chea, and minced meat formed into a patty and cooked on a griddle. "While it is cooking, it makes everyone's mouth water," he said, and it is this fact combined with the shape, I guess, which reminds him of pizza.
the Indian subcontinant has sent Montgomery College 220 students this year and approximately the smae number in yuears past. From some of them I have learned to make samsas, a savory snack of potato and pea curry stuffed in turnover dough and fired. One young Indian woman demonstrated her skill at preparing masala dosa, a south Indian fermented pancake that can be stuffed with the same fillling as the samosas. She made it the traditional way, so big that the ends hang over the plate on which it is served.
Another student, from Afghanistan, cautioned that shish Kabab must be flavored with a "special dried grape spice" or it will "taste American." Before strained relations between the two governments, a good number of Iranians studied at the College, and even now there are almost 200 students from Iran enrolled. Thanks to some of them, I discovered the "grape spice" was sumac, the delicious tangy powder they sprinkle on kevavs and rice pilaf. To eat with the kebabs, one Iranian woman brought in torshi, vegetables pickled in vinegar, and proceeded to distribute the tart condiment without bothering to explain how it was made. I supposed she thought she could hide the fact that she was neglecting to carry out the purpose of the assignment in the students' noisy scramble to get a taste of the food.
The Middle East continues to supply a steady stream of people who want to learn English. A Lebanese student demonstrated the way to make baba ghanoush taste smoky by grilling the eggplant on a barbeque before mashing it with sesame seed pasted called tahini. Israelis (there are 32 this year) prove that felafel need not be lead balls even though they are composed of ground chick peas. And an Egyptian once showed how to shaped spiced ground beef around metal skewers for Koftas.
African students, most of them from Nigeria, Guyana and Cameroon, have demonstreated the use of peanuts and root vegetalbes in their countries' cuisines. Kuaga, a dry cassave and sweet potato casserole, struck me as interesting. it consists of cassava root soaked in water for a week, then cooked at a low temperature until it is soft. To this is added ground sweet potatoes, bananas and peanuts. People serve this dish with hot soup and slated fish, and the Zairean student who described it said that they like it because they "can get satisfaction just from a little bit." Sound that way to me.
One of the Ethiopian students wrote about, but none has ever satisfied my curiosity by demonstrating the tricks of cooking infara, the spongy "bread" or pancake that is the country's staple food, made from teff and cooked in a round, stove-like mitad.
Only a small number of students from European coutnries study at Montgomary College, but most of those who do are spouses of diplomatic, World Bank, International Monetary Fund or international business people, and they are skilled in entertanining crowds. So it's not unusual for my classes to be treated to demonstrations on the process of preparing bouillabaisse (and, incidentally, to a lesson about its history form the first written recipe recorded in the 18th century in a Monastery near Marsailles and the information that it remained a "poor peoples' food" until saffron was added.) Fettucini Alfredo, paella, fornue--in my classees we have seen them all. Buttermilk or dry red wine, depending on the region of Germany, make up the marinade for sauerbraten, one experienced cook explained, and went on to say that it "origianally was made form oxen and old dairy cows" and that the marinade tenderized the meat. We also have gound out that a puree sandwith on pita bread is "Greek fast food" and that faijoada is Portuguese as well as Brazilian.
One spring, when the students in my tow classes felt especially close and the end-of-the-semester separation blues set in, I decided to invite everone to my home for a bash. Inspired by the pleasure my classes took in the cooking demonstrations and pleased with the way using food as a topic for writing and discussion had aroused people's interest in each other's cultures, I asked all who could to cook their national dishes and bring them to the party. The students arrived with spouses and friends, and some of my colleagues filled out the crowd.
And how we feasted. The assortment of foods would have put any catered party with international "stations" to shame, and at the same time that they exchanged recipes, people exchanged telephone numbers. Though I had alwasy believed its verity, I enjoyed watching the food-bringing-people-together truism in action.