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Why Do International Students Crave Food From Home?

Hamburgers v. Vietnamese food, by Nick
Hamburgers v. Vietnamese food, by Nick
November 16, 2011. Mohammed has been studying in Minnesota for just about 3 months. “Oh man I miss my mom’s delicious white spicy rice,” he laments. “Oh my god I miss my favorite Iraqi dish, Biryani.”

Sebastian has been in the U.S. for well over a year when he realizes, “I still can’t stand a day without craving the most simple things I used to have back home: meals as simple as plain white rice with potatoes and chicken.”

There are plenty of things you know to worry about when coming to study in the U.S. “How can I relate to people from all over the world?” fretted Tom. “Would I cope with speaking in English all of the time?” thought Simba. “Would I ever find anyone like [my uncle] in America?” Senzeni asked herself, in tears at the airport in Zimbabwe.

But “one thing I never thought about [before leaving home] was food,” said Mohammed; “how badly I would miss my mother’s dishes, and how food would be a huge part of my culture shock.”

Javaria even traveled all the way from Massachusetts to New York just to find a taste of the desi food she missed from South Asia.

But why does food all of a sudden become so important when you’re abroad? Why do so many international students cite food as the thing they miss most, even more than they mention their own families?

It turns out food has a more powerful role in our lives and our minds than you might imagine. Here are three things you might not know about why you miss food from home while studying abroad:

1. Food preferences are deep and ingrained

You start deciding what foods you like well before you’re even born. The foods your mother ate while she was pregnant actually flavored her amniotic fluid and were transferred to you.

Image: NIH
Image: NIH

“As children get old enough to eat solid food, they show a preference for flavors they first experienced in the womb,” according to Gary Beauchamp of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in comments to CNN.

The same goes for breast milk. Newborns who are breast-fed start forming a taste for the foods their mothers are eating well before they can consume those foods for themselves.

And once you do begin to eat, each thing you swallow starts to impact what foods you'll like later in life.

Many flavors and spices are acquired tastes – if you are exposed to them as a child, you develop a preference for them over time. This doesn’t just apply to extremely specific tastes like, for example, Vegemite. It happens with spices as basic as salt or sugar. You've been conditioned over time to like foods with more or less of various flavors.

In a country where the preferred flavors are different than what you've been eating since before birth, meals can become a far less enjoyable experience.

When Sebastian tried to describe how to make a dish that reminds him of his home in Bolivia, he conceded, “You have to find a very specific kind of red pepper called “aji” (the closest thing I found here is dehydrated Mexican red pepper).”

2. Food forms part of your identity

But the desire for food from home goes deeper than just craving certain tastes. Food is an important piece how we define culture, and therefore a piece of how we see ourselves as people. Think about how many holidays are tied to special meals, or how many family traditions are focused on foods or recipes.

GWU Asian students share their culture with classmates by cooking foods from home
GWU Asian students share their culture with classmates by cooking foods from home

When you're at home in your own culture, that culture may not feel like an incredibly important piece of your identity, because it's shared with everyone around you. Away from home, however, the things that still make you unique, like nationality or religion, can take on an importance in your self-definition that they never had before.

Abuzar explained it like this:
I no longer lived in Afghanistan, where I was Abuzar Royesh, a moderately well-known student in one of the best high schools in Kabul. At that moment all the adjectives I would normally use to describe myself felt hollow and empty.

I realized that the farther I got from Afghanistan, the more pieces of my identity fell away ... Here in the U.S. I was first and foremost an Afghan.”

And as culture takes a greater role in how you define yourself, the foods and food rituals that define it come along for the ride. You may cling to food as an anchor for who you are and where you’re from.

Dr. Julie Mennella from the Monnell Chemical Sense Center explained that native foods become “an accessible way to be transported back home,” saying that foods “come to define who we are as people.”

3. Food is deeply tied to memory

Still want more? How about this fact: food is responsible for creating some of your most significant and deeply-held memories.

Nearly all of your sense of taste is based on smell – without smell, food would be practically tasteless. And smell is the only one of your five senses that is tied directly to the brain’s “limbic system.” That’s the part of the brain that processes emotion and memory.

Image: NIDA
Image: NIDA

In fact, smell is tied to two important parts of the brain – the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which deals with learning through association. Smells (and therefore foods) become linked in your brain to events and memories, particularly emotionally significant memories. And most of these associations are formed when you're young, when smells are still new to you.

Columbia University biologist Stuart Firestein noted for Big Think, “You don’t smell something and remember a page of text or an equation or a phone number or something useful like that. You always remember something like grandma’s living room, the first day of school.”

When you’re feeling homesick, it's not unusual to seek comfort through familiar foods that recall happy family gatherings or other pleasant memories from childhood. That’s why they’re called “comfort foods” – they’re quite literally associated in your brain with happy and comforting emotions.

The strength of these links means that even close substitutes don’t fit the bill. Summer, looking for a taste of her home in China, chided Americans, “The food you are eating in Chinese restaurants, it is not Chinese.”

But while the desire for familiar foods can feel overwhelming at times, here’s a tip from Mohammed about what to do to ease the transition:
I warn you not to take food for granted. And to ask your mother, father, or even sister to teach you how to cook your favorite homemade dish, so you can make it yourself upon arrival to the States.

It took me one semester before I made a call to my mother asking her to teach me how to cook my favorite dish, Biryani. I always thought cooking was a very complicated process and I really thought it was mission impossible. But now after I have become a master of Biryani, let me tell you something: I’m so proud of myself.