Like most freshman adjusting to life at Penn, I used to think there wasn’t a food craving a Wawa run couldn’t fix. Whether it was getting a perfectly toasted, gooey grilled cheese sandwich after a long night out or a 20 ounce double-shot mocha to kick start another study session, Wawa was a god-send – and it was just a five minute walk away from the comfort of my dorm room.
Yet, as much as I’ve grown to love Wawa’s convenience, there are days when not even that perfect grilled cheese or chicken chipotle quesadilla can satisfy my foodie cravings. After five weeks here, I’ll admit that Wawa runs are beginning to lose its novelty as I find myself slipping into a monotonous routine. Slowly, the craving for Wawa is overcome by memories of my mom’s home-cooked Filipino food. While I still find it hard to turn down good Western staples, it is the tastes of the East that still remind me most of home. Born in the Philippines and brought up in Singapore, I grew up with the smell of Asian spices wafting around the house. Food was the focal point of the family – very rarely would we order our own plates; everything was communal, shared between both new acquaintances and long-time friends.
While I was afraid of losing touch with these Eastern cuisines and cultures after moving to America, I’ve been happily surprised to see how in-tune the Asian community remains with their personal cultures. Nothing made me more excited than to see all the culture-centric clubs back during the first week of school celebrating their nations — and with all these events, food always seemed to be the first way in which different groups connected with the community. As a way of celebrating these Eastern cultures, I interviewed some of the students of the freshman class to see what foods they missed the most from back home (because after all, what better way is their to get to know someone than through food?).
Name: Proud Tuksinwarajarn
Home Country: Thailand
Favorite Food: Mango and Sticky Rice
In Thailand, the arrival of mango season marks the return of Proud’s favorite dessert – mango and sticky rice. Although this popular treat is sold throughout all of Thailand, Proud’s favorite mango sticky rice comes from an elusive pop-up store run by two grandmas – everyday they would set up shop somewhere new, but you had to hurry! Their mango and sticky rice would often sell out within the hour. Though this may seem frustrating for some, the wait was worth it, making the experience of sitting down and finally getting to enjoy this dessert on a hot afternoon all the more special.
Names: JD Cho (left) and Brandon Kim (right)
Home Country: South Korea
Favorite Foods: ‘Sundubu Jjigae’ (Silken Tofu Soup) and ‘Dangjang Jjigae’ (Soybean Paste Stew)
Sundubu Jjigae – the perfect hangover cure, this Korean silken tofu soup is an embodiment of the flavors of Korea. While the silky smooth tofu is the hero of this dish, the soup is still packed with flavors of seafood and vegetables. JD’s favorite version includes clams, squid and a generous addition of ‘gochujang’, a sweet-savory red chili paste that is a popular staple amongst many Koreans – and to top it off, he cracks an egg over the soup.
Doenjang Jjigae – like JD’s favorite dish, doenjang jjigae is another classic Korean comfort food. Starting with the intense, earthy soybean paste as the base, the soup is completed with a variety of vegetables – most often, Korean radish and zucchini are added. For Brandon, this is the ideal side dish to go along with Korean BBQ, because it cuts through all the meatiness.
Alternatives in Philly? UTown
Name: Jason Wang
Home Country: Taiwan
Favorite Food: His mom’s dumplings (餃子 – ‘jiaozi’)
For Jason, ‘jiaozi‘ is most closely associated with family. Back in Taiwan, his mom would prepare these dumplings from scratch; often times, it would even require up to a whole day of prep. Starting with the dumpling skin, his mom would knead the dough across their marble counter before breaking it and rolling the dough out into thin wrappers. Besides the fact that his mom prepares the dumplings herself, jiaozi hold another special familial significance, because the recipe comes all the way back from his grandparent’s home in Shandong. Though jiaozi come in a variety of flavors, Jason’s favorite version is filled with marinated pork, shrimps, and scallions. Beyond this variety in flavor, the different components of the jiaozi themselves are versatile – the water in which the dumplings were boiled in are often used as the base for another dish called egg drop soup, whereas leftover dumplings can even be used to make pan-fried pot stickers.
Alternatives in Philly? Dim Sum Garden
Names: Valerie Hung (left) and Nicole Seah (right)
Home Countries: Hong Kong and Singapore
Favorite Food: Char Siew and Popiah
Char Siew – The eastern counterpart of a traditional American BBQ, ‘char siew‘ (Cantonese barbecued pork) is Valerie’s favorite dish from Hong Kong. Often times, it is the most humble foods that we miss the most – we find solace not in the frills of our food, but in its simplicity. Char siew is a classic example of this – Valerie likes her’s served with steamed rice and vegetables, and while this meal seems deceivingly simple, it is packed with the rich flavors of dark soy, ginger, honey, and hoisin.
Popiah – Nicole’s favorite dish from home is another beautiful example of how food helps bring the family together. Every so often, Nicole and her family would host ‘Popiah Parties’. ‘Popiah’ is essentially a fresh spring roll dish that is popular throughout Asian cuisine. From a smokey and savory dark sauce to tangy turnips, crunchy peanuts, springy eggs, crisp beansprouts, this little spring roll is a symphony of flavors and textures. During these popiah-making gatherings, many generations of Nicole’s family would come together and teach each other the process of making this dish – and while it can be commonly bought from a store, Nicole loves the rustic sense you get from getting to add you own combination of ingredients and rolling it yourself. For her version of popiah, Nicole likes to add an extra hit of super-spicy popiah sauce, red chili seeds and ginger (yep, in case you didn’t know – Nicole likes spice). Because popiah is so customizable, Nicole thinks this popular Asian dish is something that many different cultures would be able to appreciate and grow to love just as much as she does.
Alternatives in Philly? Sangkee Noodle House
Written and Photographed by Justine de Jesus