The most daunting part of Claremont McKenna’s annual International Festival is deciding what in the world to eat. Everywhere you look, something begs to be devoured—dishes you've never even heard of before or usually can't get anywhere other than some hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop restaurant in some random community of Los Angeles.
This past Saturday on a crisp, sunny early spring afternoon, it seemed as if half the city of Claremont descended on CMC’s north quad to eat Dutch stroopwafels and the Bolivian specialty saice tarijeño while watching Aztec dancers and the Los Angeles Police Irish Pipes and Drums band—a stark change from usual north quad red cup festivities and the 24-hour party madness simultaneously taking place less than 100 feet away.
I could have spent all day sampling the pork buns and other dim sum from the China booth, but immediately fell in love with the lo mai gai, a sticky concoction of rice, mushrooms, and the tiniest of shrimps, steamed inside a lotus leaf to create a sort of Far Eastern tamale.
I don’t know if there’s a more refreshing drink than a mango lassi from India, though the horchata from the Mexican stand and the tamarind juice from the Caribbean were close rivals.
Having just been to Argentina, the empanadas at their booth were obligatory. These were hefty fellows stuffed with ground pork, beef, and peas in a very fresh-tasting dough—though somebody forgot to pat dry the grease off the empanadas when served.
The only miss of the day was the suya at the African station, an overcooked beef skewer that was severely over-seasoned and tasted like an odd mix of ginger and crab seasoning. Africa’s booth did feature some excellent fried plantains called kelewele and a fascinating kachumbari, a diced tomato and onion concoction reminiscent of salsa. Far better were the kebabs next door at Turkey and Azerbaijan's booth, which featured a line with a wait longer than some rides at Disneyland.
Strangely, Germany's station only featured coffee and cake, but they sure know how to make a mean iced coffee (stuffed with mounds of ice cream). Canada’s poutine was appropriately hot and fatty, satisfying those who crave deep-fried twinkies and sausages on burgers at state fairs.
The French stand was a hit with its crepes doused in nutella, and Italy brought in some bruschetta, biscotti, and espresso that hit the spot in the day's autumnal weather.
Mexico’s tacos and quesadillas stuffed with freshly grilled carne asada were outstanding, and even Russia’s piroshkis impressed. The adults dusted off their lederhosen suits to enjoy the gated-off beer and wine garden that featured a somewhat disappointingly small array of choices.
Many of the booths were catered by area restaurants, while others featured goods lovingly made by hand by students and community members. Food always seems to taste better than you’d expect at outdoor festivals because there aren’t any other choices, but these booths served the real deal. Eating here was certainly no slouch.
A full meal didn’t come cheap—around $20 or so a person to be content—but come on: it's far less than the price for a flight around the world.