How does food connect us to home? Food can provide us with memorable experiences that can connect us back to a certain place, time, person, or memory. Our sensory memory gives us the ability to feel connected to our culture, family, and home. We can experience this through cooking and learning about the significance these recipes have to our homeland. Many students at UC Davis share this experience of feeling connected to our families by cooking while we are away from home.
Gharam Alsaedi is a third-year UC Davis student of Jordanian and Saudi descent. Gharam’s dad is from Medina, and her mom is from Mecca. Both moved to Riyadh, where Gharam grew up. She moved to the US three years ago when she started university. Now in the U.S., cooking is a way for Gharam to connect with her home and family. Gharam didn’t cook Arab food very often back in Saudi Arabia. However, once she moved away from home, she started experimenting with cooking primarily by taste, trying to replicate the exact taste of her mom’s home-cooked meals.
Her mom usually cooks Jordanian dishes such as Mulukhiyah; Bamya, an okra stew; Moussaka, an eggplant dish; and Maqluba, an upside-down rice and eggplant dish. These dishes incorporate ingredients such as potatoes, chicken, sauces made with pomegranate molasses, lemon, Maggi chicken spices cubes, Arabic spice mixes, and kabsa spices and are usually served with rice and yogurt. Gharam usually cooks pasta imitating the preparation or ingredients that her mom uses, smelling each spice before adding and tasting it. Gharam also has her mom’s cookbook which includes all kinds of recipes for desserts, soups, stews, and sauces. The main motive for cooking these foods is the sentimental affiliation with these dishes. Being more familiar with Arabic food, it’s comforting to be able to cook dishes that remind her of her family and childhood.
Our sensory memory gives us the ability to feel connected to our culture, family, and home.
For Gharam, the main difference of being in the US compared to Saudi is the quality of food; she states, “Everything there is better…any type of food is better, even the fast-food restaurants; for example, McDonald’s and KFC are better.” Food is a central part of the culture, and not having access to authentic foods can make one feel disconnected from their homelands. There are very few Arab restaurants around the Davis area, so it’s rare to experience the quality of authentic foods. On special occasions, Gharam’s extended family gets together to eat. “We have these places called estraha, a place for people to gather with families to eat…it usually has one room and a sitting area…my dad always reserves it with his friends every weekend”. Estrahas provide a place where people can connect with their loved ones and enjoy each other’s company while eating good food. Cooking allows Gharam to bring back the taste of the food in Saudi, where she states, “the best thing there is the food.”
Lea Serrar is a fourth-year student at UC Davis of Morrocan and Canadian descent. Lea’s dad is from Oujda, Morocco and her mom is from Quebec, Canada. She grew up in Oakland, CA, and lived with her mom for most of her life. Lea’s dad taught her mom a lot of Morrocan recipes. So growing up, Lea learned to cook–partially from her mom, but mostly using a Morrocan recipe book called Morrocan Cooking by Latifa Bennani-Smires. In Davis, when Lea prepares to cook, she translates the name of the specific Morrocan recipe from English to French and searches it up because she finds recipes written in the native language more authentic. Some popular recipes Lea likes to cook include Tajine, a slow-cooked savory stew; couscous; vegetable salads; and kefta, ground beef mixed with cumin, paprika, parsley, coriander, and onions. Some typical ingredients in these recipes include lamb, mint, cumin, saffron, and couscous. Lea also states that there is “always a basket of bread in the kitchen”. which was interesting to learn that their Morrocan dishes rarely use rice, as rice is essential in many North African cuisines.
Lea stated that when she cooks these foods at home she feels content. “…[I feel] so happy. I think of my dad and how happy my mom would feel because it’s healthy…and I think of the last time I was in Morocco..and all of the good memories…” Lea joined the Empowered Arab Sisterhood (EAS), a cultural sorority, her first year at Davis, immersing herself in a community of Southwest Asian and North African women. Finding a community like this in Davis was comforting, and Lea met a lot of her friends through this sorority–friends who have similar backgrounds and interests. Her next few years at Davis were filled with potlucks with all types of Arab food that she had never tried like the popular sweet dish Knafeh: “I didn’t know about Arab food before I joined EAS. I only knew about Morrocan food.” EAS gave Lea the ability to connect with so many other Southwest Asian and North African women and be involved in something that supports other women of Southwest Asian and North African descent.
There is a lot of emotion residing in these dishes and the process of cooking them. They help people stay connected with their culture, which could be a big aspect of someone’s life or an aspect they want to know more about.
Food brings people together, like the Estraha’s in Saudi, where people can gather with their loved ones and connect over good food. It is something we can create, transport, and share. It’s the most accessible part of a culture that we can all connect to. It’s important to place significance on food and cooking because it is a big part of everyone’s culture, and the more we learn about each other’s food and culture, the more we can connect with everyone.