A piping-hot bowl of wonton noodles. One bite — instant sensation. A simple dish gives comfort — a reminder of home.
“When I miss home, the first thing I want to do is eat the food I miss,” said Stephanie Siow ’17, who is from Singapore. “Even when travelling with my family members in the U.S., or speaking Singlish [a Singaporean dialect of English], or when spending time with Singaporeans, I yearn for local food.”
For international students, food is often a valuable link to their home countries. As the leaves change and American students register to vote, the gulf between insider and outsider grows even wider. In searching for a cure for homesickness, many turn to familiar foods for solace and relief.
Surbhi Bharadwaj ’20, who is from India, came well-prepared with plenty of comfort food.
“I brought a lot of food with me when I came to America: masala-flavored instant noodles, and a hundred different Indian tea bags of chai,” she said. “I also brought a fried snack called bhujia. It’s deep-fried flour, like chips. Every night after classes, I grab some of these and eat them. I think this is something that helped me avoid homesickness.”
Frankie Andersen-Wood ’18, who is from the U.K., empathized with Bharadwaj. She brings her favorite brands of food with her in her suitcase, especially Heinz tomato soup and Heinz baked beans, which she has on toast.
For others, certain beverages and food items in the dining halls are surprisingly familiar.
“I drink rooibos tea,” said Lekha Tlhotlhalemaje ’19, who is from South Africa. “It reminds me of home.”
Bharadwaj agreed. She has a similar affinity to the Tazo chai found in dining halls.
“Chai is Indian tea made of milk, hot water and sugar” she said. “That is something I end up having every morning. Because it has spices and is made with a blend of different tastes from different parts of India, it has a very distinct flavor that most Western brands can’t replicate because their tea is not sourced from India. The [Tazo] tea is surprisingly close; they got the mix of spices really accurate — so that’s amazing.”
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Ozan Say, a native of Turkey and an adviser at the Office of International Students & Scholars, spent his life eating Turkish cuisine before moving to America nine years ago to obtain his Ph.D. in Folklore and Ethnomusicology from Indiana University.
“When I first came, I didn’t like the taste of meat here; I didn’t like the taste of the bread,” he said. “There were a lot of things I didn’t like, which I’m now used to.”
Paul Freedman, chair of Yale’s program in the History of Science and Medicine, and author of “Food: The History of Taste,” said, “It’s not that you’re unhappy, or that the food here is somehow inedible. It’s just the association of comfort, home, flavor and aroma. It’s hard to get the aroma of lemon grass here, or a particular kind of soy-ginger combination.”
Pablo Pinedo ’20 expressed a similar wistfulness for food from his home country, Greece. He misses Greek salads, made with freshly bought local produce, as well as more traditional dishes, such as moussaka and Greek chicken soup.
Tlhotlhalemaje found that she yearns the most for her mother’s cooking.
“It’s never the same as when your mum makes your food,” she said. “Whenever I go home, my mum always makes duck and potato. My favorite food is potato: mashed potato, sweet potato, French fries, potato wedges. Potato with Paprika? Ooh!”
Although few dishes will compare to home-cooked favorites, the variety of restaurants in New Haven allows many to find a taste of home.
For some, Ivy Wok is more than a midnight cure for hunger pangs: The cozy Chinese eatery is a place of identity and belonging.
“I’ve missed hawker food tremendously,” Yixuan Yang ’19, a student from Singapore, said. “Ivy Wok is hardly an approximate. Food’s more than just a taste — it’s about dropping any affectations and retreating into a familiar environment. Whenever I walk into Ivy Wok, the auntie [owner] gives me her signature death glare and snaps at me. No chirpy American ‘How are you?’ or ‘I’m great!’ Just an ‘Oi, what you want?’ No frills, straight to the point. For that moment, I feel as if I’m home again.”
Siow, too, spoke affectionately of hawker food centers in Singapore. She described them as open-air complexes of food stalls, each specializing in individual dishes ranging from rojak, a dish of mixed vegetables, fruits and dough fritters, to laksa, a coconut-based curry soup.
Guo Coreen, who refers to herself as the creator of Ivy Wok, was inspired to bring hawker-style food to New Haven by her Singaporean upbringing. She opened Ivy Wok 16 years ago.
“We were initially named ‘Ivy Noodle,’” she said. “‘Noodle emphasized all kinds of noodles, but it did not mention a wok. We started with three big tables and two small tables, but we always had a problem with [too little] seating.”
Now, Ivy Wok is constantly packed with students. A plate of shrimp dumplings or a bowl of chicken broth becomes a hangover remedy, a late-night snack or a nourishing reprieve from long hours in Bass Library.
For Guo, the love for food runs in the family. Her grandfather owns the Hock Lam Beef Kway Teow business in Singapore, a hawker food store famous for their beef noodles.
“My recipes are from my mum,” she said. “My mum created these recipes, like the curry chicken. Mum was always a great cook; she gave me a lot of ideas. Any trends in Singapore — salmon skin, salted egg yolk — she would let me know about it. She would say, ‘You should try this.’”
Guo’s mother passed away last year. Her legacy lives on in her daughter’s passion for cooking.
“When you see customers finishing their plates clean, that is the thrill. Cooking is just a love. You have to enjoy it. You see how people enjoy it … that is the love,” Guo said.
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What is it about food that connects us so intimately to home?
“Taste, smell and memory are very closely linked,” Freedman said. “There’s the famous Marcel Proust and the madeleine incident in ‘Remembrance of Things Past.’ One of the things people are most homesick for when away from home is food. And you don’t always expect that, because sometimes, they actually find the food of the country they’re in better. When I did my dissertation research in Spain, I ate really well, but still missed [American] breakfast. That’s something you’re going to miss because it’s associated with home. So home and food of a certain kind go together. That association can bring out loneliness or homesickness, even when you’re not conscious of it.”
Freedman said that everybody has an equal, or fairly equal, amount of “food nostalgia,” which he considers a biological instinct.
Say agreed that the sensory element of food invokes yearning for places past. He described a scent he acutely recalls: food cooking in his grandmother’s house.
“It comes to me too often, I don’t know why,” he said. “My grandparents were devout Muslims; they always did a sacrifice. And we went to their home for the festival, I remember putting the first piece of meat on the grill. They had an outside oven, a wood stove. I’d put it right there and smell fresh wood burning. I can smell it right now.”
Still, not all cultures regard food as integral to their national identity.
“To be French or Chinese is to be part of a gastronomic tradition,” Freedman said. “Whereas to be from Finland, there may be some dishes that you like, but that’s not who you present yourself as.”
Tlhotlhalemaje does not see food as central to her identity. She said that in multicultural South Africa, there is no uniform national cuisine.
Pinedo offers a different perspective.
“I think food is definitely one of the most essential elements of Greek identity. I wouldn’t say it’s the most important, but us Greeks were known for liking to celebrate and living life to the fullest. We have huge family gatherings with food — in fact, I would say it’s essential to the Greek way of life.”
Freedman spoke of the eclecticism of American cuisine. Compared to more homogenous societies like France or Japan, the U.S. tends to “offer variety,” focusing less on quality.
Freedman spoke of the impact of industrialization on American food culture.
“Americans started eating packaged cookies, sliced bread, canned pork and beans in the late 19th century, 50 to 100 years before much of the rest of the world. And American culture has tended to emphasize efficiency, or at least not fussing about food too much.”
Freedman said that when immigrants came from places like Italy in the early 20th century, social workers and agencies complained that they spent too much time preparing food, for example making a sauce for a pasta. This puzzled Americans, who were used to the convenience of refrigerator meals: bread and store-bought cheese, butter and ham.
“It says something about priorities,” Freedman said. “Americans of a certain generation said, ‘It’s okay to cook for dinner, but breakfast and lunch ought to be rapid meals, because the time could be spent on work or leisure.’ It’s not that Americans are hardworking and Chinese people not, but that Americans think: ‘Why should I be fussing with the stove when I could be playing tennis?’”
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For all interviewed, however, food served as a pivot for human connection.
“Culturally, food defines who you are. It also fosters bonds between people. Having this conversation over food, or introducing my friends to chai,” Bharadwaj said, adds meaning to relationships.
Say invites his freshman advisees for Turkish breakfast: a meal of cheese, olives, eggs, sausages, cucumbers and savory puff pastries. Just as family dinners foster closeness and warmth, home-cooked meals allow for deeper mutual understanding.
“I’ve exposed many of my friends to the wonder of rooibos tea,” Tlhotlhalemaje said. “Sharing that bit of my home is really nice. It’s like sharing part of myself.”
Tlhotlhalemaje adds that home is no longer a fixed point on the map.
“Home is where [people] ask how you are, and genuinely care about your answer,” she said.
Indeed, as the fall air gets colder, and as trees grow bare, it is in the warmth of conversation over slow-boiled broth that home is found.