If it were up to international students at the University at Albany, the Thanksgiving table would look a little different: doughy Korean rice cakes, Chinese hot bowls, and rendang, an Indonesian dish of beef cooked in spices and coconut milk.
“I would bring the best food in the world: rendang,” said Makna Sinatria, an Indonesian graduate student, during the school’s annual Thanksgiving dinner for international students last week.
At the dinner, international students were treated to a traditional American meal: turkey and all the fixings. The students piled plates full of white and dark meat, slathered in gravy, green beans, stuffing and mashed potatoes. For some of the students, it was their first taste of Thanksgiving.
While they were largely effusive of the food, they also missed the traditional fare of their home countries.
A table of Indian students pursuing graduate degrees in computer science sat down for what was their first Thanksgiving meal.
“It’s difficult to compare that food to this,” said Abhinav Manyam, trying to think of comparable meals in India. “In India, we eat chicken; we don’t eat turkey.”
Yogesh Angajala, another computer science major, pointed out another key difference between traditional Thanksgiving dishes and Indian food, which prominently features a lot of spices and peppers.
“Indian food is very spicy,” he said. “So we would like more spice.”
They suggested biryani, an Indian dish of rice, meat and spices, as a suitable food to add to the Thanksgiving meal. Who doesn’t like chicken and rice, they said.
Politics made a brief appearance at the Thanksgiving table during the dinner. A table of exchange students from South Korea said their country lives in a constant state of tension with North Korea but didn’t seem worried about the verbal tit-for-tat between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.
“The tension has always been there,” said Seong Jin Kim, a South Korean exchange student studying statistics this semester. Kim spent two years in the South Korean military and said he was confident in its ability to protect his home nation’s citizens.
“We are paying a lot of attention to it; it’s just that we are not too scared that we have to rush out to the supermarket to buy necessities,” he said.
Regarding the meal, Kim felt strongly that American food didn’t measure up to cuisine from his home country.
“American foods are either too salty or too sweet,” he said. “Honestly, I’m very sorry about your food.”
A fellow Korean exchange student, Jung Youn Huh, was more diplomatic.
“Korean-style food is very different from home to here, so it’s very difficult” to compare, she said.
One dish, however, did excite the Korean students as they brainstormed what food would do well as part of a Thanksgiving meal: rice cakes.
They weren’t talking about the large hockey-puck-looking rices cakes sold by Quaker and other brands. The traditional Korean rice cakes — called songpyeon — are made by kneading rice powder and hot water and are stuffed with an array of fillings, from sweet to savory and steamed. The half-moon shaped cakes resemble Asian dumplings and are traditionally served during Korea’s fall harvest festival, Chuseok.
Gong Chen, an exchange student from the Cheng Du region of China, said he missed Chinese hot pots, a meal of simmering soup broth coupled with a variety of sliced meats, seafood and vegetables meant to be cooked in the hot soup.
“It’s too Chinese, though,” he said. “It’s maybe not appropriate to add to Thanksgiving Day dinner.”
Aissata Ba, a Mali native pursuing a graduate degree in women and gender studies, said she missed her mom’s millet porridge.
“But that’s not for Thanksgiving dinner,” Ba said. “That’s what I miss.”
Ba said she enjoyed the Thanksgiving food and that she could imagine using some of the dishes back in Mali. She was particularly fond of mashed potatoes.
“I love the turkey too,” she said. “It’s my second-favorite after mashed potatoes.”
But Ba was less excited about another Thanksgiving tradition: cold weather.
“I don’t like the cold because, where I come from, it’s really, really hot,” Ba said. “(In New York), even in summer, I feel cold.”
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