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International students connect through food in Laurier’s Global Kitchen

Campus hub for cultural understanding encourages students to shop, chop and eat together.

Wilfrid Laurier university students take part in a cooking workshop as part of the Global Kitchen initiative. Photo: Hannah Yoon

Generously outfitted with pairs of stoves, fridges and dishwashers, the so-called Global Kitchen on Wilfrid Laurier University’s Waterloo campus could pass for the set of a cooking show on the Food Network. Instead, it’s home base for a new community kitchen initiative by Laurier International, the university’s resource centre for foreign students.

During an evening baking workshop that took place there in the fall, food researcher and registered dietitian Ellen Desjardins marvelled at the frenzy created when a dozen students tied on aprons and gathered together around a kitchen island topped with mixing bowls and muffin tins. “It was a hoot!” says Dr. Desjardins, who runs the pilot project, part of a smorgasbord of interactive programming – cultural celebrations, kitchen concerts, potluck dinners – all focused on encouraging students to share culture through food.

When Dr. Desjardins signed on as a cooking instructor (she also teaches courses in human geography and food systems & sustainability), she was determined to emphasize easy, hearty, healthy meals that students could make for very little money – stews, chili and chicken soups – but when she asked the students what they wanted to learn, the answer was unanimous: cookies. That’s when the baking basics class was born.

“None of them had ever made muffins,” says Dr. Desjardins. “They had no idea you could actually make muffins. They were aghast!” She encouraged the use of spices to modify recipes to personal taste preferences and recalls one group from Southern China adding ginger and cayenne to the bowl.

She says she had to laugh at the site of one young male student who had never worn oven mitts before, approaching the oven with great trepidation. He pulled out a pan of perfectly risen golden brown cheese muffins. Meanwhile, she says, eight young Chinese women snapped photos of him and their squeals of delight filled the main floor of Harris Hope House, home to the university’s Student Refugee Program and now, the Global Kitchen. “He was an instant celebrity. Wait ’til his mother sees the picture!”

The baking class was also a favourite for regular attendee Abdirahman Yassin who came to Laurier in September to study economics and accounting from a refugee camp in Kenya through a World University Service of Canada scholarship program. “My first few weeks in school were challenging,” he says. “I had to adapt to a new environment, a new culture and I didn’t even know how to prepare tea.” Dr. Desjardins has found that it’s not uncommon for international students to have little or no kitchen experience. “You can’t make any assumptions,” she says.

Mr. Yassin says the Global Kitchen has been great for learning how to make things he had never tasted before like Indonesian fried rice, creamy pasta and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. He says he still misses the food from home, especially his mom’s enjera, but he appreciates the chance to meet other students who might also be struggling to adjust to student life in Canada. “I have met people from different continents of the world and we shared a lot,” he says.

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