Preparing Bengali pithas, small pies and dumplings associated with winter harvest festivals in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Stephanie Gross

In the kitchen at UVA’s Lorna Sundberg International Center, 30 people are gathered around Mahabuba Akhter (Grad ’11) and her son, Tonu Nauage, as they teach a cooking class on Bengali pithas—small pies and dumplings associated with winter harvest festivals in West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh. As Akhter spoons rice flour-based batter into a frying pan to make a patishapta pitha, a crêpelike concoction filled with ricotta cheese, Nauage calls out, “Is anyone here from Russia?”

A hand goes up, and Dasha Tyshlek (Engr ’15), who was born in Ukraine, approaches the stove. “It’s like the Russian pancakes, right?” Nauage says.

“Blini, yes,” Tyshlek responds. The two then discuss the similarities between the shape of the smaller, round bhaja pithas cooking on another burner and Ukrainian dumplings called pelmeni.

Students prepare bhaja pithas at an International Center cooking class Stephanie Gross

Around them, the room hums with activity—people on one end of the counter scoop lentil filling into pouches of dough and then press the dough’s edges together into a delicate design. Others fry the pithas in oil. A few stand toward the back of the room and chat. “I’m not here to cook—I’m here to eat!” says Nirmal Mazumder, who arrived recently in Charlottesville to complete a postdoc in biology. Born and raised in Assam, India, Mazumder says he misses the food from home.

The International Center’s cooking classes, open to both students and Charlottesville community members, have become so popular that the center can’t fulfill the demand. “People have to register online; classes fill up in 24 hours,” says Quynh Nguyen (Col ’10), the IC’s program coordinator. “It’s good, free, home-cooked food, and it’s authentic. People bring ingredients back from their home countries to cook with here.”

The center’s bright, busy kitchen has become a hub for students who have a special interest in cooking that goes beyond scoring a tasty free meal. “It’s not just about the food, but using it to bring people together and share cultures,” Nauage says, watching his mother instruct the class. Akhter, from West Bengal, was a physician in Bangladesh before coming to UVA for her master’s degree in clinical research. “Being 10,000 miles from home, we’re sharing our memories and creating new memories about family and community.”

Mahabuba Akhter (in the red apron) instructs the class Stephanie Gross

Food and cooking have always played a central role at the International Center, which was established in 1972 with the help of Lucy Hale, then UVA’s foreign student adviser (and one of the first female UVA administrators). The IC is located in an elegant brick house on University Circle, built in 1914 and given to the University by the three daughters of William Thornton, a UVA engineering professor who retired in 1931. Photo albums in the center’s library are filled with pictures dating back to the ’70s of people gathering for large meals and parties. The IC, a division of the International Studies Office, now offers an array of programs—language jumpstart classes, local outings, dance workshops, foreign film nights and book discussion groups.

The IC’s first cooking program was held in 1979, but for a fee. The current style of cooking classes, all free and taught by student and community member volunteers, began in fall 2008, after the kitchen was renovated. Now the two-hour classes are held at the center several times a month, showcasing cuisine from all over the world, from Tunisian couscous to French/Vietnamese fusion to American soul food.

Akhter and her son, Tonu Nauage, exchange smiles as they teach the class Stephanie Gross

Student program assistants plan the menus, shop for food and do the necessary prep work before each class. “We’re paid to do what I do in my apartment—cook and clean,” says one program assistant, Kevin Nguyen (Com ’15). Nguyen (no relation to Quynh Nguyen, the program coordinator) grew up in a tightknit Vietnamese-American family in Northern Virginia. “My mom taught me everything I know about cooking,” he says. “I also watched a lot of Food Network when I was in high school. I would try to re-create it in the kitchen.”

Nguyen took a cooking class at the IC his first year and kept coming back, eventually getting his program assistant job. He enjoys cooking so much that he began his own series of classes through the center called Cavalier Cooking 101, geared toward students, but open to all. “When I moved to college, I noticed that not that many students know basic kitchen skills, sanitary skills, knife skills. That was the impetus for founding Cavalier Cooking,” Nguyen says. In his classes, he teaches fellow students to cook easy, affordable, often international meals—Vietnamese spring rolls, Korean street food, vegetable taquitos. “It was the IC that inspired me to form this organization,” he says. “And then, because of that, I’ve kind of found who I am. Everyone knows me as the cooking guy.”

Kevin Nguyen (left) and Nedda Najand (right) Stephanie Gross

Nedda Najand (Com ’14), another IC program assistant, has also taught cooking classes at the center. Najand was born and raised in Virginia Beach, but her parents are Iranian and moved to the U.S. before the Iranian revolution in 1979. “Being Persian, food is huge in my family,” she says. “I grew up around food, eating kabob, ghormeh sabzi [a Persian herb stew], spiced rice. My mom cooks 24/7.” Najand travels to Iran with her family every other summer. “Food there is beautiful, really aesthetically pleasing. It’s all about how the table is presented.

“I came to UVA and in a way, got more involved with my culture,” Najand says. As the head of the Persian Culture Society last year, Najand taught Persian cooking classes at the IC. Like Kevin Nguyen, Najand taught simple dishes people could make in their own kitchens—kotlet (meat patties) and estamboli polo (string beans with rice). “Food has become this great way to introduce people to my culture,” she says. “Really, food brings people from all cultures together.”

Back in the IC kitchen, Mahabuba Akhter and class have finished cooking the pithas and are arranging them on plates. The group heads into the adjoining dining room to lay the dishes out on the long table and eat. Nirmal Mazumder, the biology researcher from India, happily scoops the familiar food onto his plate and digs in. People scatter out into the living room with their plates, settling in on couches and chatting with one another while enjoying the pithas. Akhter mentions the harvest festival in West Bengal, which the pithas remind her of, although she could also be describing the scene in front of her: “It’s a festive time. Time for joy, time to share and make together.”