By 5 p.m. on Dec. 8, Cornerstone Arts Center transformed from a roomy architectural experiment into a crowded, colorful marketplace, perfumed with the scents of wildly different foods.
When people began showing up several minutes later, the floor quickly became crowded with lines of people, students and professors alike, sliding their recyclable compartmentalized plates from table to table. Students at the Japanese table offered a scoop of sweet red beans topped with cream; students from the Nepal table offered visitors a cup of milky tea.
“Would you like to try some fake wine?” a woman at the French table asked, after handing out a heavy slice of sweet bread with jam. “It’s actually not that bad.”
She’s Mathilde Bégu, the Cultural Program Coordinator for the French House. According to Bégu, cultural events like this usually take place at the house level; for instance, the French House regularly offers Cafe Croissant Mondays, where anyone interested can show up to eat croissants and learn about French culture.
But Winter Market, Bégu said, is the “big event” of the year, when all the language houses and departments join together to recruit as many international students as possible to represent their countries to the rest of the student body. It’s a way for domestic students to learn more about international students, but also a way for international students to learn more about each other.
“Even I’ve learned new things,” she said. “It’s a huge success; I’m really excited.”
There are 20 international students who were part of the event this year. Countries represented include Kosovo, Paraguay, Mongolia, Nepal, Japan, China, Mexico, France, India, Russia, and many more.
“They can represent their countries however they choose, but most choose food” said Diana Battistella, Cultural Program Coordinator for the Italian House, noting the origami paper at the Japanese table and a display of woven bracelets at the Paraguay table.
At the entrance to the market, Anudari Sharavdorj ’22 represented Mongolia. Her table was strewn with items she brought with her when she came to the U.S., including models of horsehair fiddles, miniature ghers, and magnets depicting horses grazing on the steppes and other Mongolian scenes.
Sharavadorj said there are two big holidays in Mongolia. Naadam is a three-day festival in July, which includes horse racing, wrestling, and archery. The Lunar New Year, another three-day celebration, takes place in January. It’s a time to visit relatives, and families give each other presents.
Neither of the foods Sharavdorj gave people were particular to either holiday, though they are both popular foods in Mongolia. Chocolate, she said, is just a global food that everyone likes. Seabuckthorn, however, is more endemic to Mongolia. It’s a fruit that she handed out in small yellow-wrapped packets. It has lots of nutritional value and is eaten frequently during the cold Mongolian winters to strengthen people’s immune systems.
Across the room, Durga Balasubramaniyan ’20 handed out desserts at the India table. Balasubramaniyan was born in southern India, in Tamilnadu, but moved with her family to the U.S. when she was only nine months old. Her extended family is still in India, and she goes back to visit every few years, when time and money allows.
Kesari, a gelatinous yellow dessert made from wheat flour, roasted cashews, sugar, and saffron (or yellow food coloring), is a quick food to make and something often served at festivals and temple celebrations. But payasum, an even quicker household dessert made from milk, sugar, and vermicelli (a form of pasta) is her favorite, Balasubramaniyan said.
“My mom makes it all the time,” she said. “It reminds me of home, family, winter.”
Most of the students sampling the dishes only had a vague idea of the history — or even the ingredients — of the dish scooped onto their plates. But as the chefs told each visitor a bit about their country and their food, —and those visitors then gathered with groups of their friends on Cornerstone’s large stone steps to sample food off each other’s plates and talk — there was certainly a sense of festive winter spirit.