Although the first few weeks at college can feel isolating, it’s important to find a space that brings you back to your roots.
With the Brooklyn Bridge in the background and a symphony of car horns in my ears, my feet took me to a place I had never been before but already seemed to know like the back of my hand. Heights Falafel is located at 78 Henry Street in Brooklyn, New York. The restaurant is barely bigger than a dormitory, and it’s nestled between a pizzeria and a Japanese noodle restaurant. It’s easy to miss if you’re walking down the street, but I’ve always loved Levantine food, and the first week of college can be extremely lonely. Craving something familiar amidst all the “newness” of NYC, I went inside.
The first thing that struck me about Heights Falafel was that it seemed to be one of the few places in New York that served a full meal for less than $10. The whiteboard behind the register included a variety of different things such as grape leaves, chicken shawarma (thin strips of chicken that have been roasted on a spit), and of course, falafel.
For the uninitiated, falafel is a deep-fried ball or donut made from ground chickpeas, and it’s almost always delicious. I opted for the falafel plate, which is four falafels served over yellow rice with hummus and warm pita on the side.
As I sat there with my meal, I realized two things. First, my mom has been making tabbouleh—a salad made with cucumbers, tomatoes, mint, and cracked wheat—all my life.
And second, food can be a way to get back to your roots, even if you’re in a completely new environment. For students at St. John’s University who have found themselves immersed in an exciting and challenging new stage of life, cultural cuisine has helped them navigate their new surroundings.
In a time that can be both turbulent and exhilarating, it’s important to find a way to get back to basics. Four freshmen at St. John’s University described how they connect to their cultural identities through the meals they eat.
“My favorite dish from my Dominican culture is tres golpes, which is a breakfast dish of mango, fried cheese and fried salami. My favorite from my Nicaraguan side is definitely gallo pinto [rice and beans]says university student Emily Valle. “Eating it gives me a very warm feeling and makes me feel even more connected to my culture.”
Nina Sandoval, who identifies as “a proud Filipina”, describes her favorite cultural dish, Ginataang kalabasa. “It’s basically a vegetable stew with coconut milk, squash, and seafood,” said Sandoval, a clinical lab student. “Eating it makes me so happy, and all the flavors make me want to go back to the Philippines and see my grandparents.”
“My favorite meal would have to be Bún bò Huế. It’s a spicy Vietnamese noodle soup with sliced beef,” said psychology student Michelle Nguyen. “It makes me feel at home when I eat it.”
Hadia Satti, whose family immigrated to the United States from Pakistan when she was young, loves butter chicken and rice. “It’s very warm and rich, and I feel comforted in a way,” said Satti, a biomedical student.
All of the interviewees come from a completely different cultural background, but are united in the idea that food is more than what people eat. The meals people cook connect family, culture and homes.
It seems that for students, home isn’t always a place. Or at least it’s not the place they thought.
Sometimes the house is falafel from a small place in Brooklyn Heights. Sometimes home is what someone makes it, and even if they live in a brand new city, people can still find their way.