A Feast in Review: CMED takes on the Annual [Melting] Potluck

One afternoon per year, the International Institute at UCLA comes together to bask in our collective diversity, pass our favorite dishes around a giant conference table, and generally pretend like we are in a Pillsbury Crescent Roll commercial. When the opportunity for socializing arises, we are all excited by the warm prospect of sharing laughs with our peers and airing grievances of the relentless nuisance in the office above yours who seems to find reasons to nosily rearrange their office floor-plan every day. But let’s be honest, what can really get us out of our beds, offices, and general comfort zones is the prospect of food.  So the International Institute has launched a tradition of getting-to-know-each-other through the love of food and the cultures it embodies. 

The International Institute, nestled in the penthouse of Bunche Hall, is comprised of the Centers for the Study of: Africa, Brazil, Buddhism, Canada, China, Europe and Russia, India and Southeast Asia, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Middle East Developments (a.k.a CMED—that’s us!), and the Near East… just to name a few. So rest assured that when UCLA’s nucleus of cultural diversity gets together, we don’t put on any old potluck. We turn our treasured one-hour lunch break into a world tour of home-cooked delicacies. Our 20-foot conference table is transformed into a mouthwatering horizon of exotic dishes, each labeled with a flag of its origin country. This annual production is an edible microcosm of the multicultural melting pot that thrives within UCLA, to put it humbly.

Wishing you could vicariously experience this gastronomic spectacle through yours truly? One step ahead of you…

Our conference-room-turned-feasting-hall in all its caloric glory.  (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Our conference-room-turned-feasting-hall in all its caloric glory. (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Starting with our CMED staff:

Mani Jad, our Deputy Director, hails from Saudi Arabia. Mani brought her signature crowd-pleaser that she likes to call her “Saudi lasagna.” It starts with the fundamentals of Middle Eastern cooking: beef—typically ground with cumin, garlic, salt, and more garlic—paired with a starch of your choice. Mani’s grandmother passed down a tradition of layering the ground beef with spaghetti, mozzarella, and Bechemel sauce, one of the four mother sauces of French cuisine. And voila—you get what is informally known as Macorona bil Bechemel: a classic Middle Eastern beef and starch foundation with a French-Italian twist sure to satisfy parts of your taste palate you never knew you had.

Macorona bil Bechemel of Saudi Arabia, a crowd favorite.  (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Macorona bil Bechemel of Saudi Arabia, a crowd favorite. (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Nirit Hinkis, CMED’s Research and Program Coordinator, is Israeli of Moroccan descent. She recreated a family recipe for couscous that represents her North African and Jewish heritage. “All Moroccans eat couscous,” Nirit explains, “and they usually eat it with a savory vegetable type mixture on top, but in my family we eat the sweet version… it’s something very unique to Moroccan Jews living in the North of the country—those parts were heavily influenced by Spain, so their flavors were a little different.” Nirit’s final product was the perfect dichotomy of sweet and savory: couscous with sweet butternut squash, yams, onion, and garbanzo beans. And, to counter the usual discouragement that follows tempting experiments, you can try this at home! “It’s actually pretty simple to make,” Nirit assures us. Just toss all your peeled-and-chopped ingredients into a big pot with a generous dose of sugar and cinnamon, and let simmer.

Nirit, tasting her own family recipe.   (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Nirit, tasting her own family recipe. (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Sweet-and-savory couscous of Northern Morocco.  (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Sweet-and-savory couscous of Northern Morocco. (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Salome Mohajer-Ganjei, CMED’s Special Project Coordinator, is an Iranian-born globetrotter who has lived on most of Earth’s habitable continents. Salome prepared nostalgic Persian dish which, like many other Middle Eastern dishes, is inspired by French cooking. This is evidenced by its etymology; Kotlet (bearing a striking resembles to “cutlet”, or cotelette in French) is a traditional Persian patty made of—you guessed it— ground meat with onions and spices. Salome’s family recipe calls for potato mixed in as well; potato is a starch, making this another Middle Eastern beef and starch foundation, just in a different form. It makes for a delicious protein base that can be stuffed in a pita pocket or wrapped up in lavash bread. For the full Iranian effect and an added crunch, top with Shirazi salad (diced tomatoes and onions tossed in a garlic lemon sauce).

Ground beef patty of Iran.  (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Ground beef patty of Iran. (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Salome admits that not many home-cooked meals were able to spark her interest in cooking when she was growing up, but her grandmother’s recipe for kotlet was one of the chosen few. “My grandmother is an amazing chef, so she used to make this for me,” Salome reminisces. “Now that she is older, she can’t really cook that much, but about once a week she will make it for me and my cousins… It’s her way of showing love to us.”

Salome "Life-of-the-Party" Mohajer-Ganjei. ( Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Salome "Life-of-the-Party" Mohajer-Ganjei. (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Christian Rodriguez works the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies; he is Cuban-American of Jewish heritage. He paid a tasty tribute to his Cuban bloodline in the form of papas rellenas, fried potato balls. Christian, our 2016 Potluck MVP, shared not one, but two mouth-watering courses with us. Thanks to his culinary prowess we also enjoyed a Cuban dessert of flaky puff pastry filled with guava and cream cheese.

Hungry yet?  (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

Hungry yet? (Photo: Monica Ma/ UCLA)

I will conclude the virtual tour of our dining table with Erica Anjum’s fool-proof contribution. Erica, who is of both Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, is the undergraduate counselor for international studies majors. We had so many flavors in the kitchen already that Erica offered us a classic specialty from our shared home base of the U.S.A: chips and dip. They were the first thing to disappear.

The bar was set high this year, but with the plethora of culture and worldly knowledge represented here at the International Institute, there is no doubt that next year’s event will bring a fresh display of culinary ingenuity to the table, pun intended. Until then, don’t be afraid to explore the melting pot of foreign food aisles at your local grocery store, and test out these recipes at home or cook up your own internationally-inspired storm!

Special thanks to Monica Ma for her contributions to this blog post!