Diaspora dinner a gathering of ingredients, cultures

Sixty seats to fill and 60 mouths to feed with home-cooked Indian and South Asian food.

This is the order the South Asian Student Alliance (SASA) had to deliver during their annual Diaspora Dinner on Saturday Feb. 22 in the Aula.

According to SASA Co-President Saumya Bhutani ‘14, the dinner was a way for SASA to celebrate the diversity of backgrounds of Vassar’s South Asian student community.

“We do this in the form of bringing together recipes from home for dishes we love and we find that although many of us grew up in different places we still grew up with the same food. Given that food is such a large cultural experience it solidifies our connections with one another” wrote Bhutani in an emailed statement.

SASA Vice-President Divya Pathak ‘15 explained to the guests at a point during the evening, the diaspora in the dinner’s name refers to global population of people of South Asian heritage living outside the Indian subcontinent.

“Some are international students whose homes are currently in South Asia. Others are children of South Asian immigrants, either born there and immigrants themselves, or born here as full US citizens with South Asian heritage,” Pathak wrote in an emailed statement.

She added, “The significance of a ‘diaspora’ to us is in celebrating this mix of identities and recognizing the widespread presence of our South Asian-ness, both physically manifested in our embodiment and culturally manifested through food, movies, music, philosophies, etc.”

The Diaspora Dinner has been held at Vassar since the ’90s. Bhutani described how the idea of diaspora struck a chord with many South Asian students,

she wrote, “As college students who have then left our parents’ homes, which are either in the mother countries or other countries as a result of immigration, we are furthering the diaspora but still continue to maintain those same cultural ties and experiences we grew up with and bring them with us while at college.”

She went on to write, “We are now able to, besides bond with one another, share these cultural experiences by cooking for the Vassar community our favorite dishes from home.”

The cooking and preparing for the dinner began three days in advance on Wednesday evening and continued through Friday dinner. SASA decided that in order to concentrate their attention on getting their homemade entrees right, some items, including the very basic staples like rice, salad and naan would be bought directly from a local caterer.

To prepate the home-cooked portion, a total of 12 SASA executive board members came to Bhutani’s Terrace Apartment kitchen.

“It was a pretty crazy couple of days in my kitchen. On Wednesday at one point there were 11 of us sprawled all over the floor peeling and cutting onions, potatoes, and cauliflower. We almost had an assembly line going,” wrote Bhutani.

SASA was anxious that not all the diners would get all they wanted to eat. Bhutani wrote, “We actually thought all the cooking was done Thursday night but then on Friday during tabling we got a tremendous rise in ticket sales. I was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough food so on Friday evening we made more chole masala and halwa.”

Finding all the ingredients meant SASA members had to travel from store to store around the Mid-Hudson Valley. They made the rounds at supermarkets like Shop Rite, BJs, Adams, but also turned to Saraswati Groceries, an Indian store off Route 9 in Wappinger Falls.

Bhutani found Kashmiri Chilli powder, cumin seeds, cayenne pepper, coriander powder and paprika at Saraswati.

Some of the ingredients, on the other hand, like amchur (mango powder) and kesar (saffron) for the homemade dishes literally did come straight from home.

Bhutani wrote, “It also helped that for certain spices that we needed a small quantity of and are expensive and sometimes tricky to find, we were able to get some from my parents who actually live close by.”

SASA also purchased 32 onions for the dinner. The Chole Masala curry alone called for 20 onions. Cutting so many onions produced certain challenges, according to Bhutani.

“Everyone was in tears even if you weren’t actually cutting but just in the room. Actually, one of my housemates’ eyes were watering while she was sitting in her room upstairs,” she wrote.

Cooking continued right up to the moment as ticket holders began trailing in. The mango lassi was made and the samosas were fried the day the event, and midway through the dinner, and SASA members went table to table with biscuits and hot chai tea.

Bhutani also described a little help she got.

She wrote, “To be honest, my mother came and helped us cook and that was a huge relief. SASA still did most of the heavy lifting but it was reassuring to have her there to oversee everything and guide us,” she wrote, adding, “It eliminated a lot of insecurities that can arise during the cook process cause we’re a bunch of college kids that don’t cook for ourselves often…let alone 60 other people!”

For Pathak, the cooking and work was every bit worth it at the end of the day.

“Getting everything together on the day of the event was hectic, but so rewarding as it all pulled together and we got to see 60 people with happy faces and bellies,” she wrote.

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