International students experience Bon Appétit’s ‘international food’

Liz Sieng

credit: E. Johnson

Perhaps the first time many of Whitman’s international students eat American food is upon arriving in Walla Walla, when they encounter Americanized versions of their home cuisines in Reid Campus Center’s Café ’66.

“It’s good food, but it’s not Mongolian,” said junior Enkhjin Batjargal, as she dug into her plate of Café ’66’s Mongolian grill option from the Fire and Spice line.

Students often credit Bon Appétit for living up to its reputation of providing seasonal and nutritious foods through its extensive menu and salad bar. Bon Appétit regularly serves ethnic dishes in the dining halls and at Café ’66,  ranging from Indian curry to taco salad.

After leaving her native Mongolia to study at Whitman, Enkhjin first became familiar with non-authentic Mongolian food from Bon Appétit. She urged her visiting sister, Nomunaa Batjargal, to sample her plate. Nomunaa appeared unexcited to try her first American-made Mongolian meal.

“This doesn’t look anything like Mongolian food,” she said before taking a bite.

With few exceptions, all students are required to purchase a meal plan when they begin studying at Whitman. Incoming international students who discover menu items supposedly from their host countries are likely to experience a fusion of cooking.

When asked for her opinion on the dish, Batjargal only responded with a polite smile. Unsurprised by her sister’s reaction, Enkhijin pointed out the dish’s distinctly un-Mongolian characteristics: the unfamiliarly sweet sauce, the use of Japanese Yakisoba noodles and the variety of vegetables not typically found in Mongolian dishes.

“The meat, vegetable and noodle concept is the same. The ingredients are different,” she said as she further explained that Mongolians often stir-fry noodles but do not eat tofu or water chestnuts and typically do not use bok choy, bell peppers, broccoli or mushrooms.

Whether there are differences in preparation or in flavoring, campus food shows that interpretations of foreign dishes can easily fall way off the map.

Enkhijin mentioned how Mongolian food differs in other locations.

“I’ve never had Mongolian food anywhere else in America,” she said, “But when I first came [to America] I heard about how popular Mongolian grill is and that restaurants stir-fry meat on big stoves just like Mongolian soldiers used to barbeque with their swords. It’s completely untrue. Mongolian grills are a myth.”

Junior Trang Pham, from Vietnam, grinningly shared the story of her encounter with Hanoi beef soup at Prentiss Dining Hall. Born and raised in the capital Hanoi, Trang guessed that the dish was a popular beef noodle soup usually called Vietnamese pho.

“When swiping into the dining hall I saw it on the menu and was so excited!” she exclaimed. “I told my friends to try it with me, but when I went to the soups I couldn’t tell which one it was.”

Trang approached Susan Todhunter, Prentiss Dining Hall manager, and asked her to identify the correct soup of the two.

Explaining that she was surprised by the taste, Trang said that Vietnamese soups are traditionally flavored with herbs and green onions and mixed with thinly sliced beef, whereas this soup had a sweet flavor and contained chunks of beef.

“I thought it tasted plain,” she said, “I was disappointed, but I appreciated that they tried.”

Students may not agree with American representations of their home foods, but they are able to appreciate Bon Appétit’s effort to diversify the menu. For those judging the international food provided at Whitman, senior Neda Ansaari emphasizes that it is the thought that counts.

“I realized that it was hard for them to make the right flavors,” she said.

Originally from India, Ansaari first experienced Americanized Indian food at Whitman while working as a Bon Appétit server. Observing the kitchen and inspecting the spice cabinet, she noticed unfamiliar methods of cooking and a lack of familiar spices. Still, she would eat Jewett’s chicken curry on a weekly basis.

“I thought the taste wasn’t great. I thought it was probably made with spices they use in any other food,” said Ansaari. “It makes sense that they won’t have very exotic spices.”

Since curries at home are much spicier and more flavorful, Ansaari was satisfied but unimpressed.

“When you grew up with a particular spice at home, something your mom made or a specific style, it will obviously not taste the same here,” she said. “If Americans go somewhere else to get a hamburger, I’m sure it won’t be the same.”