It’s a typical Monday afternoon in Barnard’s Hewitt Dining Hall. Amid the jumble of students vying for food, one sees that a long table in the front of the room is dominated by students using blue trays—this is the Jewish table. In the far left corner, there’s also a group of Korean friends eating together.
While these are noticeable divisions inside the cafeteria, they’re harder to spot in other spots on campus. It is only during meals that these congregations tend to line up with shared cultural traditions.
For many students at Columbia, there’s a clear connection between food and their cultural identity. Whether it’s just for a taste of home or a way to connect, students from all different backgrounds feel a strong sense of identity that is intimately linked with the food they eat.
For some Chinese students, cultural food can serve as a way to feel closer to their roots and a means of sharing their culture with new friends in New York.
“The style and purpose of eating is strong in Chinese culture,” Jeff Niu, a senior at Columbia College and secretary of the Chinese Students Club, says. He stresses that eating in China is primarily a family activity, a ritual that takes place around circular tables that ensures all the participants in the meal can see each other. The rounded seating arrangement promotes equal access to food and lively conversation. “Everything is shared,” he says.
“Food represents—I don’t want to say it’s the pinnacle of culture—but it’s definitely a way to share culture,” Niu says. “Serve [someone] food, and that’s the window into learning about China—by exploring its food and by realizing that it is incredibly diverse. [Food] is a good way of getting closer to culture.”
For Jewish students, food serves an equally important role in building and reinforcing community.
Fostering that sense of belonging is a central goal of the Shabbat Meals Committee, the branch of the Jewish campus life group Hillel that coordinates kosher Friday and Saturday meals at Hewitt.
“I think there is an aspect of Judaism that it connects to, which wouldn’t be religious, per se, but would be Jewish. Culturally Jewish or socially Jewish,” says Yacov Lewis, a sophomore at the School of General Studies and a board member on Hillel’s Shabbat Meals Committee.
For religious Jews on campus, those Sabbath meals are an established part of their weekend routine. The gatherings can attract upward of 300 students.
“Students really appreciate eating at Hewitt because it gives them a traditional Shabbat dinner, something they might be familiar with from home,” Lewis says. For most students involved, Sabbath meals represent something more than just food. To them, it’s a way to connect to their culture.
“The Shabbat Meals Committee at Hillel does really important work for the community,” Lewis explains. The organization responds to the needs of observant students dependent on Hillel for Sabbath meals while also providing a space for Jewish students who may never have eaten a traditional Sabbath dinner before.
“It’s a really nice opportunity for people to experience a traditional [Sabbath] dinner while at college,” Lewis says.
(Photo by Maddie Molot / Staff Photographer)
But that opportunity is a rare one at Columbia. Some students from other cultural backgrounds lament the obstacles college brings to their typical eating experiences.
For some Korean students, for example, the food at the dining halls and local restaurants can seem homogenous because they are accustomed to a wider variety of meals. Some students, like Philip Lee, a junior at Columbia College and treasurer of the Korean Students Association, venture outside of campus to find traditional meals.
“We’re used to having a main rice dish and having 10 to 20 other side dishes,” Lee says. “I think that comes as a shock to a lot of international students.”
Lee says that Koreatown in Greeley Square is a popular destination, one that students will seek out every few weeks when the monotony of Columbia’s meals becomes overpowering.
“At least for me, it feels like a break from the food that’s kind of forced on us here,” Lee says.
Many students lack the time to travel off campus to access those familiar foods. But that doesn’t eliminate the drive to continue to celebrate their heritage at the meal table.
“Generally speaking, I think people at Columbia are very busy,” Niu says. “That’s why we have dining dollars, we have plans, and when we’re not using those, we usually just buy food. It’s convenient, it’s about the same price, and cooking food is more for special occasions.”
Special events become times when students can choose to eat traditional food to celebrate a holiday with their peers, or maybe just take a break from the repetitiveness of the meals offered in the dining halls. Some students even go out of their way to ensure they have this dose of culture at common intervals throughout the year.
“Some students try to organize an eating event when a festival comes around, like where people come together and eat moon cake and they order Chinese food, or [on] the Chinese New Year,” says Shirley Feng, a senior at Columbia College, executive board member of the Columbia Culinary Society, and co-editor of the Culinary Society blog.
Feng doesn’t feel an overwhelming desire to eat Chinese meals in favor of other options and says that her preference for traditional meals is balanced out by the wide variety of food available in New York.
“It’s so easy to find food from all over the world, it’s almost overwhelming,” she says.
At the same time, she admits that communal Chinese meals help satisfy nostalgia and build community.
“There’s a saying in China, ‘When there’s a festival, you think about your family more,’ and I feel like that has something to do with the food,” Feng says. “Because on that day, you just feel like you should be eating moon cake, or you should be eating and then talking with your friends about Chinese culture.”
“You definitely have a strong sense of where you are when you’re eating foods you’re familiar with,” Lewis says.