Spices and handicrafts give students a (literal) taste of South Asia

Students and faculty enjoyed Chai Tea, Southeast Asian foods from UConn Catering, and a presentation about Southeast Asian handicrafts. (Nicholas Hampton/The Daily Campus)

A cozy crowd gathered Wednesday in the International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS) Lounge for an intimate coffee hour focused on the spices and handicrafts of South Asia. Led by Tarang, a UConn graduate student community that brings together grad students from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives, the get-together allowed students to share their own cultures and learn about others.

To kick off the hour, graduate students and Tarang members Preeti Srinivasan, Vandana Gurung, Surya Eada and Santhosh Periasamy gave a presentation on spices and handicrafts common throughout South Asia. Gurung described a kitchen cabinet’s worth of spices and their culinary and medicinal properties: Indian bay leaf, star anise, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, turmeric and ginger are but a few of the multitude of spices in the South Asian pantry. Furthermore, each region, country and family has its own secret combination for the beloved spice mixture garam masala, Gurung said.

The discussion then flowed from South Asian spices to South Asian handicrafts. Periasamy and Eada spoke of the various crafts practiced throughout the region. Bangladeshi artisans create nakshi kantha (decorated quilts), jamdani (a type of muslin) and shital pati (cooling mats). In Sri Lanka, craftspeople work on lacquerware, reed and rushware and wooden masks. Carpet weaving is popular in India, while woodcrafts are a traditional handicraft in Nepal. Artisans in Pakistan work with gems to make jewelry and other ornaments.

After the presentation, students and presenters alike were invited to try some traditional South Asian food. The crowd enjoyed chai, naan, tandoori spiced chicken, vegetable korma, gulab jamun and kheer, a type of rice pudding. While students ate and relaxed, South Asian music played in the background to give a sense of the region’s musical traditions.

Additionally, ISSS staff set up a station where students could paint their own small diya (a lamp used in South Asian festivals). Tarang members and other students gladly sat down to take part in the activity.

“It’s more like a release for all of us grad students … where we just let loose and do things which [are] just not academic,” Srinivasan said of participating in Tarang and the organization’s events. “It’s also kind of like a way of keeping our cultures alive in a land that is far, far away from our homelands.”

When later asked why the Tarang members chose to speak about spices and handicrafts, Srinivasan said that it was because these aspects are important parts of the culture that others outside the culture don’t realize are so major. Eada chimed in to say that handicrafts and spices are also unique to their different regions. Each type of craft and spice mixture is indigenous to a certain area and remain valued traditions therein. Tarang hoped to share this cultural lesson through their presentation Wednesday.

“Everybody here in [the] U.S. has mixed cultures, and we have students from different cultures, so it’s really nice to know other cultures and be respectful,” Arshiah Mirza, another graduate student and member of Tarang, said. “Only when you know other cultures you can respect them, and you can explore more and you can start loving them too.”


Stephanie Santillo is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.santillo@uconn.edu.