Princeton University Careers

Sharing new tastes through cultural heritage dining

On a recent weekend, the line outside Princeton’s Rockefeller-Mathey College Dining Hall started well before dinner began at 5 p.m. A steady stream of hungry students continued through the evening as people came from across campus to enjoy the authentic Indian food served most Saturday nights.

“I’ve always been a fan of Indian food. I’d say the quality here is just as good, if not better, than my favorite restaurant back home in California,” said Julian Castellon, Class of 2020.

“Honestly, if you gave me my mom’s [lentil curry] dish and this dish, I might not have been able to tell the difference,” said Binita Gupta, Class of 2020.

The weekly meal is just one example of how Campus Dining exposes students to new cuisines and cultures, as well as reflects the different tastes of students who come to Princeton from all over the country and the world.

Dining halls at the residential colleges and Graduate College feature a cornucopia of food on daily menus. Fresh homemade mozzarella, yucca chips, a dim sum bar, North African braised beef and Jamaican jerk chicken are just a few examples. Chefs are encouraged to create new dishes and collaborate with students on ideas and recipes brought from home.

“Right now for the Class of 2020, it’s the largest percentage of diverse student body we have seen in the history of Princeton,” said Smitha Haneef, executive director of Campus Dining. “Through food we are able to not only educate and nourish them, but also inform them about cultural sensitivities and about diverse ethnic cuisine types.”

Student organizations also partner with the dining halls to host cultural heritage dinners, which are often part of larger celebrations on campus. This academic year has included themed dinners for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Black History Month, Filipino Heritage Month, Latinx Heritage Month and Native American Heritage Month.

In November, the student group Natives at Princeton and Whitman College presented the second annual “Night of Native Cuisine.” The menu featured forest mushroom salad, pumpkin seed-crusted steelhead trout, succotash-stuffed acorn squash, blue corn bread and sunflower seed cake. Emery Real Bird, president of Natives at Princeton, worked with the chef and staff at Whitman to develop recipes, procure ingredients from American Indian suppliers, and teach students about the history and significance of the food.

“We tried to highlight the whole swath of America with the food,” said Real Bird, Class of 2017. “Showing that there is not just one American Indian, but it’s different tribes. There are Apache, there are Pueblo, there are Rosebud Sioux. We tried to represent all these different ranges of identities in the dinner. It was a lot of things you eat every day but don’t necessarily know it’s from the Americas. I think a lot of people really liked the recipes because they were unique and they are not usually found in dining halls.”

Mayee Chen, Class of 2019, said she hopes the cultural heritage events and the variety of food served every day in the dining halls will lead to more conversation and learning.

“Often times we get our plates of food and we sit down, and the food itself is a very common ground for discussion. ‘This is really good or I never tried this before,'” she said. “The different types of cuisine definitely bring about a sense of community.”

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