The UCLA International Institute recently hosted its second annual potluck, continuing our tradition of gathering to delight in the experience of breaking bread and barriers. This year’s potluck brought a variety of cultures to the same table, focusing particularly on Middle Eastern cuisine with the goal of opening a dialogue about the diverse yet interconnected nature of the region. The International Institute represents an incredible geographic range, stretching from the United States to Austria to Saudi Arabia to the Philippines. On this day, of all days, one can see and taste how the myriad of experiences and influences of each individual contributes to the fabric of our institute. On this day, one can witness the importance of establishing diversity to better our communities. The International Institute is a true champion of this notion--and what better way to celebrate that than with food from around the world!
Each contributor offered their own cultural background and culinary insights through their dish while also taking something valuable away by experiencing the food of someone else’s homeland. Ranging from dishes like the traditional Lebanese Bean Yakhni made by Ann Kerr, Fulbright Coordinator of the International Institute who spent six years of her life in Lebanon; to food with beloved personal practices like Salomé Mohajer’s family custom of making Iranian Kashk e Bademjan; to the native Southerner Sheila Breedings’ homemade Mac n Cheese. This shared lunch embodied a delicious fusion from multiple continents and cultures.
Mani Jad, CMED Deputy Director, originally from Saudi Arabia, brought a tasty couscous salad inspired by a classic mixture of dressings, spices, and vegetables native to her home. Her experiences living in the Middle East have allowed her to contrast her own perspective with the Western media’s depiction of the Middle East: “unfortunately what you see in the media is not the Middle East I know. When I think of the Middle East, I think of family, laughter around the dinner table. It’s such a warm region and there’s so much love,” Mani added, “a good way to expose people to your culture is always through food," because it allows them to experience a part of the Middle East that's not generally depicted in the media.
Among our diverse group was Salomé Mohajer, CMED’s Special Projects Coordinator, of Iranian descent. She brought a traditional Iranian dish, a crowd favorite called Kashk e Bademjan, which she described as fried eggplant with garlic, mint, and kashk, which gives it a “little tangy flavor.” It is typically paired with delicious, freshly made flat bread baked in a hot clay oven.
Salomé also recognizes the importance of food as an introduction to culture. Having grown up in the cultural melting pot of Los Angeles in constant interaction with individuals from all over the world, she believes food is an essential bridge to understanding, “whether it’s language or food, we’ll realize that [someone of a different culture] has a certain dish and I have the same dish, but you call it something different. I thought it came from [my] place and you thought it came from your place until we met and realized that we both have the same dish. So the food is a huge connector and teacher.”
Nirit Hinkis, Research program Coordinator at CMED, proudly shared her Matzo Ball Soup, a traditional Passover holiday dish. Nirit offers yet another perspective into the juxtaposition of culture and food. She spoke about the connection between land, food, and people, reminding us of the “strong connection to the places that the food is from. For example, food often uses the ingredients that are native to that region, so by tasting it, you’re tasting something that’s cultural, something that’s historical and something that’s very native to a specific region.”
On the topic of diversity in the Middle East and its ties to the food at the potluck, Nirit supported Salomé’s statements, capturing the spirit of this event completely. “On one hand, it shows that the Middle East is very diverse. On the other hand,” she says, “it shows that the Middle East is not as diverse as maybe we think it is, because you have this range of different types of food from different places but you also see a lot of overlap and similarity.”
Alexandra Lieben, Deputy Director of the Burkle Center for International Relations, made a salad inspired by her home country of Austria and her recent work relating to the Middle East. When asked about the ingredients of her salad, she responded: “I used ingredients from the Middle East because I find the flavors, just like the people, to be wonderfully complex.”
Alongside the variety of Middle Eastern plates present, other participants brought dishes that represented their cultures and their areas of study at UCLA, expanding this event into an interregional dialogue. For example, Sheila Breeding, Administrator of the African Studies Center, brought her famous Mac n Cheese with Ethiopian bread, combining her Southern identity with her passion for African Studies.
Meanwhile, Barbara Gaerlan, Assistant Director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, brought Filipino Leche Flan. Barbara lived in the Philippines for many years and spent a majority of her time in Marawi, a city heavily influenced by Arab culture due to its large Muslim population. She spoke fondly of her time in the Philippines, presenting it as her motivation to become the founding director of the UC Education Abroad Program in 2001. She stressed the importance of implementing programs surrounding international education and awareness, because of their capacity to promote diversity and directly expose students to various cultures they might not otherwise encounter. Sharing cultures in such a positive light fosters a greater sense of empathy, altruism, and global consciousness on campus--all things we can’t get enough of, especially amidst such trying times around the world.
This year’s event was a wonderful expression of the cultural artistry that comes with the exchange of handcrafted delicacies from all over the world. Perhaps the most significant feat of this annual tradition is the ability to foster unity within the program and spark interest in swapping ideas, recipes, and stories one plate at a time. We look forward to seeing what distinctive plates turn up next year!