Starkville is truly a unique community. I realize I am not the first person to say or recognize this; in fact, I am echoing the weekend words of the mayor, as many of us looked out over Mississippi State University’s drill field at the International Fiesta. We are a small town that happens to be the home of a major state university, but it’s much more than that. What the university brings to Starkville is not just a front row seat for SEC sports, or an opportunity for a quality college education, or even a major local employer. What the university brings to Starkville is the world.
According to the university’s website, individuals from about 75 different countries are a part of the student body, and close to one-third of those countries were represented at the International Fiesta on Saturday. There may have been even more, but at least that many were selling food, which I find to be one of the best ways to interact with a country’s culture. And we didn’t just experience tastes and textures that were unique diversions from the everyday American palate - that is only one part of the international food package. In some cases, we also had the chance to learn about the customs of the meal, a key component to just about any world culture.
I think it might be wise to offer a disclaimer of sorts here. As we made the rounds of the fiesta, we ended up eating and visiting for well over two hours, and spending all that time tasting and talking prevented me from being able to write down the properly-spelled name of every single dish. And because of the volume of bites we tried, there is no way I can do justice in describing everything we ate. Each participating student group should be congratulated for serving up some terrific food –– it was tough to resist finishing twenty-something plates. So instead of an exhaustive list, consider this a highlight reel.
One of the first things we tried was a potato salad with veggies and bacon put together by the German Club, served in colorful plastic cups. The cups were not red, but the potato salad was still worthy of a song. At the other end of the row the Spanish Club offered another cold chicken and potato salad. I think it was a version of a Venezuelan Gallina salad, which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially because it was cool –– and by that time I was not.
There were several kinds of heat happening out there. It was a beautiful day to be outside, but it was also a pretty good day to be under a tent in the shade. That didn’t include the shimmering heat from an abundance of grills, which meant an abundance of grilled food. The Iranian Student Association had a really tasty and moist (not always easy) ground beef kebab, while the Filipino Student Association served smoky chunks of meat brushed with a barbecue sauce. Then, of course, there was the pepper heat. The Indian Rasoi group had a couple of curries that really lit up the taste buds, as did the Sri Lankan Association. Both groups told us that they had toned down the heat for our American palates. I confess I’m not sure my tender taste buds could handle the real thing, so I appreciated the down volume knob. The Thai Student Association had a pretty spicy Panang curry as well, but they also provided a milky version of sweet iced tea, which was perfect for cooling us down.
Several of the groups took their presentations beyond just the food. Under the Turkish Student Association tent we were seated on rugs and pillows and served an eggplant dish that ultimately took first prize. As described to us, it was a thick slice of eggplant first fried, then split and stuffed with a ground beef mixture and baked. Later at the booth of the Vietnamese Student Association, we were taught not just about the individual foods on the plate, but how to eat them. According to our host, Vietnamese food is largely about balancing all the flavors, and to demonstrate she built a lettuce wrap with noodles, sauce, dikon radish and carrots, and grilled shrimp. Alone, all those elements were pretty good –– together it was a radically elevated experience, and it earned them second prize for the day.
It wasn’t all spicy and smoky, however –– there were plenty of great sweets to go around, too. The winning dessert was a mango pudding served by a group who called themselves the Bengali Kitchen. If this had been at the end of our food tour, I’m sure I would have eaten more than my fair share. It made me want to return to the days when we had a mango tree right outside our front door. (That was not in Starkville, by the way –– don’t go running to the Co-op looking for mango seedlings.) Next to place in the dessert competition was what the Tahmineh group called a window cookie. This one is tough to describe in appearance, but I can describe what happened in my mouth that made it a winner to me. Upon first bite, the ridges that made up the window pattern were flaky and crispy, but once the pastry hit the tongue it virtually melted –– a fabulous texture experience.
Kudos to the World Neighbors Association for putting together the International Fiesta. I may not have tried food from 75 different countries, but I’m pretty sure I got at least a bite of 75 different foods. And I got to eat with my hands. What’s not to like about that?
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .