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Tasty traditions

November 29, 2012


When James arrived in Iowa he was surprised to learn how much Americans cherish the holiday season. He said, “In my country (Tanzania) we have many holidays, but not as many as Americans. Sometimes we change our meals and “are advised to act sophisticated. In my family, we change our meals and go shopping.”

Depending on their beliefs, James says that many Tanzanians exclude food on religious holidays. On an average day James’ brother likes to cook, but it is a treat when his mother prepares food on the holidays. “Chipsi Mayai,” or yam chips and fried eggs, is one of her specialties. He suggests that all Americans try it because “in my country many people like it.”

Over the past four months, James has begun to favor American food over his own. “I actually don’t miss my traditional food because I like American food. I sometimes make pancakes because they are easy.”

Chipsi mayai

The only difference James has noticed is in stoves. “Many of us use charcoal stoves to cook, but here I see electrical stoves.”

Whitney (Tanzania), an exchange student in Indianola, is also a big fan of American cuisine and says that the Tanzanian way of cooking is “actually not that different.”

For special holidays, Whitney’s family prepares pork, chicken, sausage, beef, fruit salads, rice, french fries and her favorite- dirty rice.

“I am looking forward to celebrating Christmas in America because they told me you have Santa here. We don’t have him in my country,” she said. Both James and Whitney are enjoying the holiday season in America, but were a little perplexed by the idea of Halloween. James said, “People go door to door asking

Deborah cooking for her host family

for treats, then get candies. I asked why people care about Halloween and no one gave me a satisfying answer.”

Deborah from Tanzania says that her family celebrates many holidays. As custom, just before a meal is served, her father is the first to wash his hands.

Food is an important part of Deborah’s family’s celebrations as she wakes up early to help her mother cook before church. “I am basically the one who prepares most of the meals,” she said. Because Deborah claims her host mom is such a great cook, Deborah has had a little break from cooking since arriving in Iowa.

Meutia’s soto banjar from Indonesia

One of her favorite meals from home is cooked bananas and chicken. Ingredients such as coconut milk, tomatoes, onions and a few spices are added to the mix. Deborah suggests that Americans should also try the spiced rice dish of Pilau.

As Tanzania has a significant Muslim population, many of our students celebrate Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. When home in Tanzania, Nasra and her family prepare for the celebration three days in advance.

“On the first day of ‘Eid’ we wake up early, clean, decorate the house and cook some other foods like meat chops for breakfast.” Nasra said when the men in her family return from the Mosque, everyone enjoys a big breakfast together. Traditionally, her father takes her younger sisters to their relatives and neighbors where they receive gifts of money. She compares it to Halloween.

Nasra and Asha’s finished Rice Chila

“This festival is so special to me and my sisters because the family gets together and we eat different food than on normal days.” After celebrating with her family, Nasra looks forward to the evening when “we go out and have fun.”

Holidays such as Eid in Tanzania have a very significant meaning to Nasra and her family. Up until the beginning of November, she had yet to celebrate a holiday in America with any religious meaning. She says the thing that has shocked her the most “is that people have different celebrations without knowing why they are doing that and it is totally different from the celebrations in my country, as most of our celebrations are religious or for the nation.”

A meal prepared by Deborah for her host family

Although the exchange students are still looking forward to celebrating a religious holiday in Iowa, Deborah is beginning to see decorations pop up everywhere. She believes Americans “take celebrations seriously, and I always notice when something is going on.” She said in Tanzania there are many occasions which pass without her knowing about them.

Thousands of miles away in Indonesia, Meutia also celebrates Eid Al Fitr. She says it is a “big celebration where people who live in the city usually go back to their hometown villages to celebrate with their family and relatives.”

This year Meutia was lucky enough to miss out on the expensive and crowded transportation. She recalls the expensive ticket prices, the news stations giving traffic reports and the large number of car accidents that took place in years prior.

Meutia’s favorite dish is Sweet and sour crab

Meutia also celebrates Hero’s Day and Indonesian Independence Day where she and her friends sell homemade goods to each other at school. Competitions such as singing contests and Rubik’s cube races are also popular. Depending on the holiday, Meutia either dresses in “traditional costumes” for holidays such as Hero’s Day, or adorns a traditional hijab or scarf.

She dressed as an Indonesian ghost for Halloween this year, and looks forward to celebrating Christmas. “I’m waiting for Christmas! It’s going to be a big holiday here,” she said.

Meutia tells us that people who prepare holiday meals in Indonesia usually make “original food from their hometown.” As the country is made up of several islands, each is home to unique cuisine.

Meutia’s “yummy” sop buah

“I have a Javanese(Java Island) neighbor, and they usually make gudeg. Because my father is from Sulawesi Island, we usually have Coto Makassar.” Another type of Indonesian soup Meutia enjoys is “soto banjar.” She says her family usually accompanies the soup with “sop buah, which consists of various fruits and we put syrup and sweet milk on it. It’s yummy!”

Although it is tough for Meutia to choose her favorite dish, Kepiting Asam Manis, or sweet and sour crab, is her top pick. She was even generous enough to give us her family’s recipe.

Diyah celebrating in her “Muslim suit”

When Diyah’s (Indonesia) family celebrated Eid, they are sure to remember it as a day of sacrificing their best halal domestic animals. For her family it is usually a cow, but can also be a camel, goat, ram or sheep depending on the region.

“The meat is divided into 3 parts,” she said. “The family retains one third, the next is given to relatives and the last third is given to the poor and the needy. Charitable practices of the Muslim community are demonstrated during Eid by seeing that no person is left without an opportunity to partake in the sacrificial meal during these days.”

Although Diyah doesn’t enjoy cooking, she did make “chicken opor” for her host family. When in Indonesia, her favorite dish is grilled chicken, but she thinks “all Americans should probably try rendang because it is the most delicious food in the whole world.”

Diyah’s prepared chicken opor for her host family

Diyah said she was looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with her extended host family in Ankeny and Chicago.

Saedah from West Bank was surprised that her first meal at with her host family was spaghetti, salad and fruit salad. “I was surprised how healthy my meal was. I thought all along that all Americans eat is junk food and fast food.”

“Food has really been the best thing here. I make sure to try everything,” says Saedah. When she hears of something she would like to try, Saedah’s host mom has been more than willing to make it for her.

Saedah making cupcakes

One difference she has noticed between Palestinian and American cuisine is the flavor. “Palestinian food is more salty and sour. Here when you have a donut you think one bite is enough because it is so rich in sugar!”

Along with her host sister Zahra (Pakistan), Saedah appreciates her large host family because it reminds her of her own. “My family is the type of people who talk a lot while sitting around the table. It is the same here.”

In early fall, Saedah’s host family invited their friends over for some Palestinian food. Saedah and her host mom wrapped beef and rice in grape leaves she brought with her from Palestine. “I had so much fun making it with my host mom,” she said.

Saedah enjoying some McDonalds

Saedah’s favorite Palestinian meal is a breakfast dish called “Sfeha.” The dish consists of “a beef, meat and tomato sauce, different spices, tahenaa and lemon juice.”

With an uncountable number of religions, traditions and holidays celebrated around the globe, it is important to learn about the different cultures transforming our world. To continue promoting international understanding, development and peace, IRIS is happy to share our students’ traditions, customs, holidays, celebrations and even food.

Below are several of the students’ American likes and dislikes!


Likes: Pizza, cereal and pancakes.

Dislikes: Olives


Likes: Crab cakes and Mexican pollo loco.


Likes: Pizza

Dislikes: Nothing!


Likes: Spaghetti, tacos and sweets.

Dislikes: Beef/chicken and noodles


Likes: Everything!


Likes: Fried chicken & french fries from KFC and anything spicy.

Saedah(West Bank)

Likes: Deviled eggs, cheeseburgers, cupcakes, beef tacos and pizza.

Dislikes: Chinese orange chicken

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