“You are what you eat.” While cheesy, this statement truly highlights the impact of food and how it encompasses a big part of my own identity. As I’ve grown up, my taste buds have evolved, and Asian cuisine has emerged as one of my top food preferences. Moving to a place like USC has only strengthened my appreciation for Asian food and how it connects to my cultural identity.
Several times throughout my first year, I felt nostalgic and homesick. It was my first time away from home, and even though I grew up in the Bay Area, Los Angeles provides a completely different scene. I turned to comfort food and spent my time scouring campus to find food that reminded me of home.
My initial discovery came in the form of a very fortunate surprise: the Parkside Dining Hall.
Walking to the dining hall, I thought it would be a run-down student cafeteria serving pizza and sloppy joes. Luckily, these preconceptions faded away as I swiped my ID card and was greeted by a bistro bar serving large bowls of fried rice.
The aroma was powerful and reminiscent of the dim sum restaurants back home, which only got better when I customized the ingredients I wanted in my dish. Scooping rice out of the bowl, I felt as if I had been transported back to my childhood self as I enjoyed my first meal at my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant. My delight didn’t stop there, as I found out that the bistro rotates its personalized offerings, featuring options ranging from heartwarming pho bowls to tender bulgogi — cuisines I had taken to during our countless day trips to San Francisco.
While the dining hall, by far, exceeded my expectations, my one trip to Tutor Hall Café inside the Viterbi School of Engineering a week later was all I needed. Wanting to expand my horizons beyond the dining hall, I was mainly attracted by the café’s banh mis, a food I had discovered only the year before through a food truck at my local shopping mall. Although the meal was not fabulous, its food-truck style packaging and its overly spicy peppers conjured up memories of my first experience eating the sandwich.
At this point, I was unsure whether my dining hall could be topped in terms of Asian cuisine variety. However, a trip to Fertitta Café in Fertitta Hall led me into Asian heaven. The restaurant hosts numerous stations and offers almost every type of Asian food. Bite-sized dumplings, customizable ramen bowls, delicious banh mi and freshly made sushi are only a handful of the options available. The scene brought me back to my family’s annual Christmas Eve buffet, where my uncle hosted the extended family in his restaurant to serve everyone a feast that encompassed cuisines from Japanese sushi to Chinese chow mein. Looking back, I probably ended up making my way over to Fertitta Café at least twice a week last year because of this fond memory.
Still not satisfied, I followed a suggestion from a friend and headed to the Law School Café on the bottom floor of the Musick Law Building. I had already ventured away from my central sphere of culinary familiarity with Fertitta Hall and was ready to continue exploring.
Entering the restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the place served not only the recommended salmon rice bowls but also boba tea — something I had occasionally enjoyed getting on late nights with friends. Even though I didn’t have either much back home, I was reassured to know all of my desired Asian cuisines were covered.
As I reflect, ultimately, food is one of the most definitive ways to express my culture and identity. It’s much more than nourishment — it plays a key role in how we view ourselves and can create long-lasting memories. Importantly, food can bond people, especially in Asian culture where meals are generally family style. I can’t count the endless amounts of dim sum meals I’ve had over the years I’ve traveled to see my family in Utah. However, being able to easily access the same dishes at Parkside Dining Hall or Fertitta Café has allowed me to reminisce on the good times I’ve had with my relatives.
Food calls to mind fond memories of family, friends, special occasions and travels. Above all, it defines tradition, be it a special celebration or just the comfort found in recipes passed from generation to generation.
I applaud USC for providing a wide range of cuisines and acknowledging different cultures beyond the token offering of Panda Express in Ronald Tutor Campus Center. The University should be commended for understanding the role of food in expressing one’s culture and identity and for its diligence in hosting a Chinese New Year dinner in the Parkside dining hall.
Nothing has the power to lift spirits and fuel souls more than the fulfillment of nostalgic cravings.
Vincent Leo is a sophomore writing about Asian American identity. His column, “Sincerely Asian American,” runs every other Thursday.