UCLA’s renowned dining halls dish up diverse and adventurous plates, but even its various and inviting menus don’t satiate the hunger I have for the food I grew up eating at home. I knew that with just one swipe, I was lucky to be eating a diverse amount of food, but I still felt I was missing something. In fact, when I chose to move out to the apartments in my second year, this lack of choice over the food I once ate was one of the main factors that pushed me to leave the dorms and my meal plan behind. Dish after dish, I eventually learned the inconvenience of cooking for myself, but it was much more fulfilling to struggle through one of my mother’s recipes than it was to wait in line for something spooned onto a plate by a server.
It was prime time in the dining halls, and Feast at Rieber bustled with hungry Bruins. I squeezed past a throng of students lined up for the featured dish at the Bruin Wok station, eager to get to another station with less waiting. I glanced at the vegetarian option displayed on the screen, which listed peanut butter stew. Squinting at the bowls filled with a thick golden-brown sauce, I edged closer. I suspected this “peanut butter stew” was Feast’s vegetarian version of the Filipino dish kare-kare, a savory, peanut-based stew typically boiled with oxtail, beef, tripe, eggplants, bok choy and string beans. My initial surprise subsided, and I quickly grabbed a bowl.
Once I returned to my table and tasted the stew, my confusion only deepened. It certainly emulated kare-kare but lacked the richness from the missing odd cuts of meat that usually dominate the otherwise plain peanut sauce. As one of the few Filipino dishes that are neutral in flavor, kare-kare is typically served with a spoonful of bagoong, a pink, salty shrimp paste, to brighten the taste.
That night, the essential bagoong was missing. It made sense, I thought, remembering its notorious strong smell – no one wants that. I similarly justified the absence of the chewy intestine and bone-bound meat. Although I appreciated the surprise of this take on kare-kare, I knew that the Filipino food I longed for was back in the Filipino diners, served in plastic foam containers by an aproned tita – not in the dining halls. I was unsettled, as the missing ingredients in the kare-kare reminded me what I was missing in my college diet.