School Celebrations: Maintaining Tradition Far From Home



By Ryan Cashman | Photographs by Dominic Perri

Over the river and through the wood, to Grandfather’s house we go …”

Over 170 years ago Lydia Maria Child perfectly expressed the excitement of an impending family celebration (in her case, Thanksgiving at her grandfather’s home in Medford). The spirit of this poem continues to resonate with many of us and going home for the holidays is a key part of many family traditions.

Each year, thousands of international students call the Pioneer Valley’s colleges and universities home. Ryan Cashman, a student at Westfield State University, visited with members of the international community at three different schools and shares their stories with us.

For Max Saito food is more than just sustenance.

“Food is important to relationships and friendships and being together, and is important to your health,” he says. “It’s essential.”

Max was born and raised in Japan, in the Yamagata Prefecture. He came to America in 1989 and is now an associate professor in the communications department at Westfield State University. Max and his family embrace the traditions and foods associated with the New Year celebration. He explains that “It’s really about celebrating good luck, good health, good fortune, safety.”

The foods on the table play a role larger than simple nourishment. Beans and mochi (glutinous rice), for instance: “Beans bring good health and good luck. Mochi gives you strength and longevity,” Max explains while miming stretching out the rice with his hands. “Mochi also gives you a lot of energy.”

Soba noodles are another dish that represents long life and are also a very important dish in the Japanese New Year tradition.

New Year Soba (Toshikoshi Soba

Dashi is a seasoned stock made with kombu (dried kelp) and bonito flakes (shaved skipjack tuna). It’s the base of many Japanese noodle dishes and miso soup. Yields 4 servings.

6 cups dashi (Recipe here)

⅔ cup soy sauce

⅓ cup mirin

1 tablespoon sugar

8 ounces soba noodles (buckwheat noodles)

Garnishes: 1 bunch scallions, green parts sliced very thin, fish cakes, tempura flakes, nori (seaweed)

Simmer together the dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. Keep warm for serving.

Cook soba noodles in a large pot of boiling water, according to package directions. Drain the noodles and rinse in cool water, gently rubbing them to remove any excess starch on the surface of the noodle.

Pour the hot dashi broth into soup bowls. Distribute the soba noodles equally. Add garnishes of your choice.

Nay Paing is a sophomore majoring in political economy and third world development at Hampshire College. When the winter winds start to blow he thinks fondly of the warm weather in his home country. Burma, officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is a country in Southeastern Asia and is bordered by Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, and Thailand. The country sits between the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer, giving it a tropical climate with yearly monsoons and humid summers.

The Burmese celebrate the full moon on Tabodwe (which usually occurs in February). Paing says the traditional celebration dish is htamanè. Tradition requires that this snack be prepared in large quantities by several people (usually men) working together.

“I don’t know how to make any of this stuff,” Paing confesses. But, he said, it tastes good.


Our version of htamanè is nontraditional in that it’s made in a fairly small quantity. If you’re feeding a crowd, it doubles easily. The traditional dish is also kneaded together by several cooks to form a rice dough or paste. A simple way to knead the rice is in a stand mixer with paddle attachment. (Htamanè is pictured on page 1.) Yields about 4 cups.

¼ cup oil

1½ cups glutinous rice (also called sweet rice), soaked overnight in water and drained well

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into fine slivers

¾ cups water

1 teaspoon salt

1 banana leaf, cut to fit the top of your cooking vessel, optional (you can find banana leaves in the freezer section of Asian markets)

½ cup roasted peanuts, chopped

½ cup sesame seeds

½ cup shredded coconut

In a wok or wide skillet (12-inch) heat oil until very hot and nearly smoking.

Add soaked rice (be careful: The liquid in the rice may cause a fair amount of spattering) and ginger and sauté for 5 minutes. Add water, salt, bring to boil.

Lay the banana leaf over the top of the rice, if using. Cover the pan and cook over very low heat for 20 minutes. Turn off heat and let rice steam for another 10 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients and stir into the rice. Drain off any excess oil. Serve.

Sidonio “Sid” Ferreira, director of enrollment services and instructional support, is the founder of the Cape Verdean Student Alliance at UMass Amherst. Christmas is the biggest celebration of the year in the culture of Cape Verde, an island nation off the west coast of Africa.

“It was never hard for me or any of us to bring our traditions over to America,” he says. “When we immigrated we went to New Bedford … everything we needed in terms of food was available and everyone was celebrating. It was pretty easy to bring our traditions and keep them alive.

“On Christmas Eve we all have a boiled codfish dinner.” Salted cod, or bacalhau, is a traditional Portuguese ingredient and it was introduced to Cape Verde when the islands were still a Portuguese colony. In Sid’s home, bacalhau is soaked in a tub of water to draw out all of the salt and is then boiled with potatoes, carrots, yams, and kale.

“We serve it with lots of oil and vinegar,” says Sid.

And of course, “desserts are very important!” Sid exclaims. The most important dessert is the pudim de queijo (milk pudding), a baked goat’s cheese dessert similar to flan.



Pudim de Queijo (Milk Pudding) 

You may also bake this in individual custard cups or ramekins if you prefer. They will take less time, about 15–20 minutes.

1 cup (240 grams) sugar

1 cup water

8 ounces soft goat cheese (chevre), crumbled

2 eggs

4 egg yolks

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Preheat oven to 350°. Grease an 8-inch glass pie pan with butter or pan spray.

Combine sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer until the liquid is the consistency of a thick syrup. Add the cheese and mix well. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Beat in eggs and yolks.

Pour in the cheese mixture. Place the pie into a roasting pan large enough to hold it and pour boiling water into the roasting pan to about halfway up the pie pan’s sides.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pudim jiggles just slightly when you jostle the pie pan. Cool before unmolding and serving.

Ryan Cashman is a junior communications major at Westfield State University. He writes for the campus newspaper.