Cultural meals tie together communities, create connections

Aja Rayburn, a freshman at OSU majoring in philosophy and business management, makes a vegetable yellow curry for herself and friends. 

Angel Xuan Le, News Contributor

UHDS, local markets, Global Community Kitchen provide traditional foods, ingredients.

Born and raised close to the ocean in Sumatra, Indonesia, Pyrena Luhur grew up predominantly on fish dishes that were traditional to that region. Now at Oregon State University, Luhur, who works as a student success peer facilitator at the Asian & Pacific Cultural Center, struggles with finding foods and ingredients in order to make and eat the cultural foods she is accustomed to.

“Cultural food brings people together and it was made by previous generations and modified throughout the generations; it has become a part of tradition and an identity,” Luhur said in an email.

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Terrance Harris, the director of the Lonnie B Harris Black Cultural Center, believes that cultural food is comfort food and is passed down from generation to generation.

“Learning about other cultures takes you outside of your comfort zone and box,” Harris said in an email. “Learning one’s culture is a way of learning more about that individual and appreciating the true value of diversity.”

Being from Kentucky, Harris understands that many people from the Pacific Northwest region have not had or cooked soul food, which is what he grew up with. He feels it is his responsibility and others from the south, midwest and northeast to share that taste and experience with OSU. 

“In the Lonnie B Harris Black Cultural Center, we bring the true essence of blackness in everything,” Harris said. “Food is the major key to that.”

According to David Ryusaki, the Global Community Kitchen advisor, cultural foods assist in connecting people within a community.

“I think food in general connects people no matter where you are from,” Ryusaki said. “It breaks down all the barriers and walls there are. Even if we don’t speak the same language, with food we can always find some similarity.”

Restaurants within OSU’s University Housing and Dining Services often provide cultural meals. Certain restaurants, such as Boardwalk in McNary Dining Center and Arnold Dining Center, have menus that cycle every week featuring global cuisines. These menus can be viewed online, and typically include flavors from a variety of countries and regions.

Specific examples include Serrano’s and late-night option La Calle, which offer Mexican and Latin dishes varying from burritos to tacos or Cuban sandwiches, said Tara Saunders, assistant director of nutrition and sustainability with UHDS. Furthermore, Nori Grill in Arnold Dining Center offers Korean pork bowls, ramen and sushi.

It’s important for UHDS to offer a variety of cultural meals and work towards being as inclusive as possible of everyone’s comfort foods, Saunders said.

“We want to expose and educate our customers on global cuisines, offer a large variety of food options to our customers throughout the year, along with being responsive to religious dietary considerations,” Saunders said in an email.

For students on campus, UHDS takes into account student feedback and suggestions regarding cultural meals, Saunders said.

“These dishes are decided on by various factors such as popularity, comments from our students and staff, what’s trending in the food world, our chef’s vision and passion, food sourcing and the ability to offer a wide variety of dishes throughout the year,” Saunders said in an email. “There are several popular cultural recipes that have come from student feedback.”

Students can also enjoy cultural meals at student-led culture nights that collaborate with the Global Community Kitchen at OSU. The Global Community Kitchen serves thousands of meals throughout the year to students and the OSU community to provide insight on the creation and production of food, said Ryusaki.  

“Cultural Nights are a crucial part of the OSU community just because of the representation of the students. The only way that sometimes they can express a form of who they are, are through these nights to the OSU community and the broader Corvallis community,” Ryusaki said. “We can have dances, we can have skits, but the food component is one of the most important parts of it and ties everything together.”

Ryusaki’s role is to educate student groups on how essential food can be to their culture show programs. To help them understand this, student groups create their own timelines for their food production which consists of development, taste testing, scaling recipes, serving the food on event day and post-event clean up.

“There is a lot of cross cultural experiences working around food, breaking bread and breaking down barriers,” Ryusaki said. “These people are like me and eat these foods.”

The Global Community Kitchen is a unique program because it is completely volunteer-based, Ryusaki said. Within the kitchen, volunteers are responsible for the whole process from planning to serving. 

“We are the only one in United States in higher education that allows self-production. No other university that we know of right now has fully given the risk to students,” Ryusaki said. “We should be very proud and very grateful that we have this program because it allows us to showcase a lot of our cultural groups on campus through their food. To really highlight, it should be celebrated more that we can actually do this.”

In order to participate in the program, there is a process in which students must check availability of the kitchen, reserve it in advance depending on the scale of their specific event and have their event reviewed by the Department of Student Leadership and Involvement, Ryusaki said. Afterwards, they must schedule an appointment with Ryusaki discussing all details about food development and production.

Back when Ryusaki was a student at OSU, he faced many struggles regarding his preferred foods since he was far from his home state, Hawaii. He often visited Rice N’ Spice, a small Asian market with foods and ingredients that were the same as what he had at home.

“(It) goes back to the persistence. Are we going to stay here? If there is nothing that culturally represents who we are, if there is no store to buy these ingredients, what is making me stay here?” Ryusaki said. “If I don’t see people who are like me on campus and I don’t have any of the food, if none of the restaurants are conducive to how I want to make it. How can I find it in a store that doesn’t know what we have?”

It’s important to have stores like Rice N’ Spice to provide ingredients to Corvallis because it helps create a sense of community, said Ryusaki. Unlike before, there are more store options people can go to for international foods and ingredients like Bazaar International Market and HK Asian Market. 

Bazaar International Market is a Middle Eastern store that can be found on SW 3rd Street. The owner of Bazaar International Market and Al Jebal middle eastern restaurant, Ibrahim Abdullah, first came to Corvallis to provide ingredients for his middle eastern customers. 

“Over time we’ve grown to love Corvallis and all the people. We used to have mostly Middle Eastern customers, but now we have a very diverse group of customers and welcome many from out of town where a market might not exist,” Abdullah said in an email.

Abdullah has gained a lot of support from the OSU community over the past several years. To show his gratitude, he opened up the Monroe International Market so that students can have easier access to ingredients or snacks they might miss from home. 

“Our goal with that market was to create a small market to offer as much international items as we can, especially focusing on snacks from around the world,” Abdullah said in an email. “I know coming from another country you’ll get home sick, and since we try to create a little feeling of home and carry some of the foods they’re used to.”

For the last 10 years, the mission of both Abdullah’s markets has been to bring international products to the customers in need, whether it’s olives from Lebanon or kimchi from Korea. 

“Our goal is to bring the world to Corvallis and carry as much as we can,” Abdullah said in an email. “We’re known for our spices, teas and vast amount of cookies and chocolates. We would love to see more new faces and have them discover us and welcome everyone.”

Luhur said that stores with cultural foods are important for students that don’t want to eat Western food as they provide ingredients to help preserve students’ culture.

“When my friends and I had a hot pot dinner, we would go to these specific stores to buy ingredients,” Luhur said in an email. “Because both of my parents are from Sumatra which is near the sea, we often have fish dish in our house ikan gulai, ikan bakar and other Padang food. But we also often have different traditional dish from Java and other home cooked Chinese style foods.”

It may be difficult for someone far away from home to not eat the cultural foods they are used to eating, said Ryusaki. 

“Cultural food really is a crucial part, especially on this campus, because it brings communities together,” Ryusaki said. “But also, you get to learn about so many other different groups of people who are different from yourself. You may learn that we are similar in a way.”