Food files: Tofu, mushrooms and green things — a look into the refrigerator of Kyla Smith SC ’19

An East Asian female college student stands in a dorm kitchen smiling
Kyla Smith SC ’19, who has lived off-campus since her sophomore year, experiments with Japanese, Chinese, Korean and South Asian recipes in her off-campus kitchen.

Napa cabbage, silken tofu, two varieties of mushrooms and a 1-pound bag of chili powder — these are some of the tried and true staples lining the refrigerator and cabinet shelves of an off-campus kitchen. 

Kyla Smith SC ’19, who will graduate this fall, has lived off-campus since her sophomore year and is currently on the five meals per week plan. Last fall, she studied abroad in Osaka, Japan, where she cooked for herself with ingredients bought from a nearby store, packed into a backpack and lugged home on a bike.

“I got to experiment with a lot of Japanese recipes, Korean recipes and Chinese recipes mostly, but also some South Asian recipes,” Smith said. “I really got into making fresh noodles.”

Although she still keeps the fridge stocked with the usual suspects — “tofu, mushrooms and green things” — grocery shopping in Claremont is a different story than in Osaka. A 15-minute round-trip bike ride in Osaka opened the doors to more variety than Smith knew what to do with at first. In Claremont, access to a comparable selection requires two more wheels and a driver’s license.

Smith, who doesn’t have a car, relies on friends to either pick up groceries for her or bring her along, meaning she doesn’t always have the chance to visit her favorite Asian groceries: 99 Ranch, H Mart and Hoa Binh.

Instead, she takes opportunities to restock her fridge when they come up. 

“If someone were to tell me they were going to Super King, I’d be like, ‘Oh, can I come along?’” Smith said. “Or even Trader Joe’s, I’d be like, ‘Oh, can I come along?’ Usually my fridge isn’t well-stocked … so if I hear someone’s going grocery shopping, I’ll just ask to go along.”

Despite this inconvenience, Smith’s cooking is certainly not lacking flavor. All manners of bottles and jars lurk in every corner of her kitchen: sesame oil, soy sauce, black and white vinegar, assorted herbs, the Korean hot pepper paste gochujang and the famous Chinese chili sauce Lao Gan Ma. 

These ingredients, along with onion and garlic, become sauces that form the basis of many of Smith’s dishes. She especially likes using hot pepper and vinegar to add more flavor dimension to otherwise mild ingredients.

Some favorite meals for Smith are hotpot and tteokbokki, a Korean rice cake stir-fry to which she adds a personal twist of mushrooms and vegetables. Sometimes, breakfast is a steaming bowl of noodles, tofu and eggs, but for fear of them breaking or spoiling on the bike ride home, eggs have yet to grace the shelves of Smith’s refrigerator this semester.

Kimchi and homemade noodles are also on Smith’s to-do list, but she hasn’t found the time to undertake these more intensive projects. 

“It’s kind of relaxing to just knead dough for a while,” she said. “Here in Claremont, though, I just makes things that are really quick because I don’t feel like I have the luxury of time.”

As for the kimchi, the two heads of napa cabbage lying in wait for their five-hour transformation process will have to wait a bit longer — at least until Smith finishes her Fulbright application.

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