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Food fuels community across the globe

Everywhere, food brings people together. Participating in the daily rituals around food—whether growing, preparing, cooking, or eating it—is an essential part of the Volunteer experience in communities abroad. Here, Volunteers share the food traditions that made their service special.

By SabrinaPublished 28 days ago 6 min read

Stephanie Sang (Madagascar, 2016–18)

How did food help you connect to your community abroad?

Cooking meals together was a wonderful way to spend time and connect with my host family, especially in the beginning when my language was limited. Food preparation on the southeastern coast of Madagascar involves fetching water to wash the vegetables and dishes, as well as cutting and gathering dry wood for the fire. Helping with those chores was a small way I could show gratitude for my host family's generosity.

What was a favorite food in your host country?

In Madagascar, rice is life. They say, “Tsy vary tsy voky,” which roughly translates to "No rice, never full." It's a staple of most households. To prepare rice for cooking, my host family and I would first pound the rice with a mortar and pestle in order to de-husk it. Then we'd pour it from a container onto a large mat on the ground, allowing the air to separate lightweight husks from the heavier rice. Finally, we'd sift out rocks and bugs. When cooking the rice, you have to stoke the fire continuously as it cooks. Processing rice is hard work, but it’s the tastiest rice you'll ever eat.

Did you share a food tradition from home with your host community?

I’m Chinese-American, so for Lunar New Year my students and I tried our hand at making dumplings and eating them afterwards with chopsticks. My mom sent me the recipe, and I bought ingredients in a nearby town. It was a great way to share my family's food tradition with my community. It was also a teaching moment about cultural diversity in America.

Julee Muro de Gerome (Dominican Republic, 2016–18)

How did food help you connect to your community abroad?

I was interested in learning about the vegetables and fruits abundant in my community, and I took advantage of the naturally organic foods I could buy from community members or grow myself. In the Dominican Republic, people did not waste as we often do [in the United States], and I am grateful to have experienced the sharing that takes place in a small community. One neighbor was known to have the best yuca and another sold fresh oregano. Regardless of income, by trading with each other everyone was able to have a variety of foods.

What was a favorite food in your host country?

In the Dominican Republic, there are so many varieties of fresh fruit juices. My favorite was fresh passionfruit juice. Chinola (passionfruit) contains a sweet pulp and many tart seeds. We would blend the pulp and seeds, then strain it for a refreshing treat. And there is no substitute for fresh coconut right from the backyard.

Did you share a food tradition from home with your host community?

Christmas was an important holiday in my community. Though people were very poor, they would dress to the nines and purchase special items they could only afford once a year. These would be things like globe grapes and holiday rum. Christmas was a time of visiting neighbors and sharing hot cocoa made with local cacao beans.

Teagen Barresi (Nepal, 2016–18)

How did food help you connect to your community abroad?

In Nepal, the daily routine revolved around food. A common greeting from a neighbor was, “Khanna khannubhayo?” (Have you eaten yet?). A negative reply would draw skepticism and, often, an invitation for a quick snack or cup of tea. Larger meals were typically eaten in the late morning and again in the evening. Families sat together and shared a wide variety of vegetables, meats, lentils, rice, and different kinds of achaar (pickled vegetables and fruits). I fondly remember brisk winter evenings sitting around a fire with my host family, eating generously from the steaming piles of rice and vegetables and sharing in the warmth it all provided.

What was a favorite food tradition in your host country?

A staple of Nepal’s national dish, dal bhat, is rice. Just as important as eating the rice is planting the rice. This traditionally takes place in early summer, just as the first monsoon rains begin to fall in the region. During the rice planting season, schools go on holiday and communities come together in the rice paddies, working long days to ensure family fields are fully planted. Although it is physically demanding work, aching backs are comforted by big meals taken right in the paddy, and the constant presence of family and friends.

Nepal gave me a chance to live in a community where people truly supported each other, where neighbor relied on neighbor. Often, homes were filled with multigenerational families, great-grandparents to great-grandchildren. Living in a community like this made me continuously grateful for my family and community all around the world.

Miranda Deighton (Georgia, 2015–17)

How did food help you connect to your community abroad?

Food is a big part of Georgian culture. Every holiday or celebration turns into a supra (სუფრა) or feast. Some of my best memories of service took place in the kitchen. I helped my host mom make khachapuri, Georgian cheese bread, for family parties. Most of the time I just got in the way, but she took the time to teach me anyway. Or I’d talk with her about her life as she washed dishes. If I was having a hard day, or if my host mom thought I was sad, she would make me chvishtari, a fried corn bread filled with cheese

Did you share a food tradition from home with your host community?

I would make my host family tacos or brownies on my days off. I couldn’t get tortillas in country, so I learned to make them from the internet. If I picked up peanut butter at the international store in the city, I would make cookies. The first time I made cookies, the smell filled the house and the whole family was excited to taste them. When I took them out, they were still soft, and my host uncle thought they were ruined. But as soon as he tried one, he wanted more.

What was a favorite food in your host country?

There are some really amazing foods in Georgia. At restaurants, we would always order mtsvadi (meat on a stick cooked over an open fire), lobiani (bean-filled flat bread), and ojakhuri (pork, potatoes, and onions cooked in a clay pot). No discussion about Georgian food would be complete without mentioning tonis puri (Georgian flatbread), which is delicious. It’s baked in a ceramic circular oven with the dough stuck to the side. You can buy it almost everywhere for a few Lari (about a dollar). It’s warm and filling, and you can eat it with other things or as a meal by itself.

Alexander Barrera (Dominican Republic, 2016–18)

How did food help you connect to your community abroad?

One thing I admire about Dominican culture is people’s desire to share whatever they have with those in need. Often, while walking in my town, neighbors would stop me and offer food, coffee, or time. Time to chat, time to share. As Americans, we have subcultures that value communal strength but, by and large, our society leans toward individualism.

I still attempt to practice what I learned about the importance of the human collective in my everyday life. Whenever I purchase large avocados or fruits, I slice them to share with those who are eating with me.

What was a favorite food tradition in your host country?

Eloisa, Eridania, Milagro, Monchi, Wendy, and the list goes on, our meeting place was the fogon, a fire pit for frying food. Sitting around the fire day or night, we'd wait for the delicious choice of fried foods. Tostones, pica pollo, yoni kake, bola de yuca, chicharron—the choices were not exactly the healthiest, but I didn’t gain weight and I enjoyed the company of my community.


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    SabrinaWritten by Sabrina

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