Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Thursday

December 20, 2012

Foreign students long for home cuisine

For the international students who come to study at Interlochen Arts Academy, life in the United States can take a little getting used to. Although they profess to love it here, there is one thing that they really, really long for — food from home.

"I'm definitely missing the food," said Marko Jevtovic, 17, a Serbian junior studying visual art who is surprised by the plethora of processed foods Americans seem to love. "I'm having a hard time adjusting."

None of the food he has sampled here has been close to what he is accustomed to eating at home, he said. So the list of foods he craves is long.

"No one in Serbia is a vegetarian because our meat is so good," said Jevtovic.

And they consume a lot of it. Many dishes include variations on minced meat. That's typically lamb, but also turkey or chicken — rarely beef.

Barbecue or grilling is popular in Serbia and Jevtovic especially loves a grilled ground meat stick called Cevapi.

"You put five to 10 pieces on a plate and serve it with sour cream and chopped onion and eat it with a flat bread," he said. "The origin is from when we were occupied by the Ottoman Empire, but we've developed it into our own style."

Serbian cuisine also includes influences from the Balkans, Central Europe and the Mediterranean.

Another favorite is Kajmak, a dairy product that is similar to clotted cream.

"It's very popular in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, the Middle East. The traditional method is to boil the milk and when it cools you skim off the top," he explained. High in fat, it can be eaten with meats or in a flat bread.

Another one of Jevtovic's favorites is Ajvar, a side dish that originated in Serbia. Typically made from bell peppers, it can contain garlic and eggplant.

"It's very widely used and very long lasting," said Jevtovic. "It's eaten in winter a lot and eaten during the holiday season."

Jevtovic will be going home during IAA's Christmas break this year and he looks forward to the feast that his family will prepare.

"Every family also has its own guardian saint and we have a Saints Days which we celebrate and it is often a bigger deal than birthdays or Christmas," he said. "It's very nationalist, like your Thanksgiving."

Another traditional winter dish Jevtovic loves is Sarma, which has cabbage, chard or grape leaves rolled around a minced meat filling. It is often served with mashed potatoes and "a lot of cheese," he said. "It's one of our favorite things."

"We also have a famous drink that is strong and tasty and everybody drinks it," said Jevtovic. "People can drink a lot of it, it's in our genes."

The drink he referred to is Rakija. Produced by the distillation of fermented fruit, it can include a variety of fruits such as plums, apricots (Jevtovic's favorite), grapes and peaches.

"My grandma makes it and we usually drink hers because she makes it very, very good," he said.

Like Jevtovic, Thapelo Masita, 19, said he also misses his family's dishes. A cellist from South Africa, Masita came to Interlochen to study classical music. Although he is enjoying trying American cuisine, there are foods from home that he wishes he could find here.

Fortunately, someone recently gave him some Rooibos tea, a South African staple, and he said his mom will be sending him more.

"That's one of the things I've really been missing. I love it. You begin and end each day with it," he said.

A smooth maize porridge, Pap is another staple that Masita misses. It is often eaten at breakfast. "There's a lot of maize where I come from," he explained.

Having a barbecue, or braai, is a traditional part of a holiday celebration.

"It's always red meat that's grilled, usually lamb," said Masita.

Another celebratory dish is Umngqusho, a traditional combination of samp (cracked hominy) and dried beans, either pinto or kidney.

"They are cooked together and it is very colorful and absolutely delicious," said Masita.

The teen said he would be remiss not to mention roasted sheep's head, which is as ubiquitous to some South Africans as roasted chicken is to Americans. The heads are stripped, parboiled and roasted over direct heat, explained Masita.

"It's very, very good," he said. "And you can make a stew with the meat."

Another comfort food that Masita misses is a steamed bread served warm.

"It's very plain, very light bread and the color depends on what kind of flour you use," he said. "You put the batter in the bowl and put that into a much bigger pot with water and put a lid with a rock on top and simmer it, which takes about two hours."

Another popular meal is chicken legs that are fried and eaten with the bread or made into a stew.

"It's a good winter meal, the kind of meal you can smell from the corner of the road," reminisced Masita.

Digorola is a dish of minced boiled sheep or cow intestines often cooked with garlic, potatoes and onions.

"It might sound bad to you, but it is absolutely delicious," he said.

Another food Americans would likely turn up their noses at is Mashonja, fried and sun-dried Mopane worms. Masita said he doesn't mind eating them, but they are not his favorite.

"They are so good for you. It's a pure, good, clean protein that the people in the north eat," said Masita, noting that he's making the most of American cuisine but remains shocked by enormous serving sizes. He is heading to New York City over the holiday break and looks forward to trying different foods while there.

Both students are taken aback by the cost of food here.

"It is so much cheaper to live in South Africa," said Masita.

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