Homecoming and Hummus: Reconnecting to Culture Through Food

While the first few weeks of college can seem isolating, it’s important to find a space that brings you back to your roots.

Torch Photo / Maggie M. Turner

With the Brooklyn Bridge in the background and a symphony of car horns in my ears, my feet took me to a place I’d never been before but seemed to already know like the back of my hand. Heights Falafel is located on 78 Henry Street in Brooklyn, New York. The restaurant is barely bigger than a dorm room, and it’s tucked between a pizzeria and a Japanese noodle place. It’s easy to miss if you’re passing by on the street, but I’ve always loved Levantine food, and in the first week of college, it can be extremely lonely. Craving something familiar amidst all the “newness” of New York City, I went inside.

The first thing that struck me about Heights Falafel is that it seems to be one of the few places left in New York that serves a full meal for less than $10. The whiteboard behind the register included a variety of different things such as grape leaves, chicken shawarma (thin strips of chicken that have been roasted on a slow-turning spit) and of course, falafel. 

For the uninitiated, falafel is a deep-fried ball or fritter made of ground-up chickpeas, and it is almost always delicious. I opted for the falafel plate, which is four falafel served over yellow rice with hummus and warm pita on the side. 

As I sat there with my meal, I realized two things. Firstly, my mother has been making tabouli — a salad made of cucumbers, tomatoes, mint and cracked wheat — wrong my entire life.

And secondly, food can be a way of coming back to your roots, even if you’re in a completely new environment. For students at St. John’s University who have found themselves thrust into an exciting and challenging new stage of life, cultural cuisine has helped them navigate their new surroundings. 

During a time that can be both turbulent and exhilarating, it’s important to find a way to return to one’s roots. Four freshmen at St. John’s University described the ways they connect to their cultural identities through the meals they eat. 

“My favorite food from my Dominican culture is tres golpes, which is a breakfast dish of mangu, fried cheese and fried salami. My favorite from my Nicaraguan side is definitely gallo pinto [rice and beans],” Emily Valle, a University student, explains. “Eating it gives me a very warm feeling, and makes me feel even more connected to my culture.”

Nina Sandoval, who identifies as “a proud Filipina”, describes her favorite cultural dish, Ginataang kalabasa. “It’s basically a vegetable stew with coconut milk, squash and seafood,” said Sandoval, a clinical lab student. “Eating it makes me so happy, and all the flavors make me want to go home to the Philippines and see my grandparents.”

“My favorite meal would have to be Bún bò Huế. It’s a Vietnamese spicy noodle soup with sliced beef,” said Michelle Nguyen, a psychology student. “It makes me feel at home when I eat it.”

Hadia Satti, whose family immigrated to the United States from Pakistan when she was young, loves butter chicken and rice. “It’s very warm and rich, and makes me feel comforted in a way,” said Satti, a biomed student. 

Everyone interviewed comes from a completely different cultural background, but is united in the idea that food is more than just what people are eating. The meals people cook connect family, culture and homes. 

It seems that for college students, home is not always a place. Or at least, it’s not the place they thought it was.

Sometimes home is falafel from a little place in Brooklyn Heights. Sometimes home is what someone makes it, and even if they are living in a brand new city, people can still find their way.

Next: Off-Campus Eats To Escape On-Campus Dining