Imagine being a world traveler, except you do not travel the world — the world travels to you. The scenario is real and occurs annually at the Mobile International Festival.
On November 18, the global showcase will publicly open its doors, a worldwide portal accessing people from 70-plus countries. They gather to interact with visitors and learn from each other while celebrating their differences and commonalities.
A rare opportunity awaits to meet people from all parts of the world in one place at the Greater Gulf State Fairgrounds. Celebrating its 40th year, and as the longest-running festival in the southeast, the four-day event typically draws over 20,000 visitors.
“Our main goal is to educate,” says the festival’s executive director and Brazil native Ester de Aguiar. “We use visual art, performing art, history, geography and languages, and we have fun doing it,” she adds while serving Brazilian coffee and chocolates at her Mobile cafe, The Joyous Goat Coffee & Tea. “The festival is all about connecting people, promoting understanding, inclusion and diversity. We are promoting peace.”
Dance, music, presentations, education and positive interactions are the order of the day. There are children’s activities, an art gallery, exhibit booths, concerts and crafts. The festival’s centerpiece, the Parade of Flags, is a goosebump-worthy sight to behold, with 70 nations marching in unison.
“This year’s festival theme is ‘Games and Sports,’” Aguiar notes. “Sports unite people, from the local community, such as hometown softball, to the national level, such as the NFL, and even the world stage, as seen at the Olympics.”
There is plenty to learn through sports. “For example,” Aguiar smiles, “soccer originated in China and Chinese Checkers started in Germany.” Also of note, nobody in Australia eats bloomin’ onions.
About 60 cultural booths also await visitors during the program, for one-on-one conversations or group demonstrations. Attendees learn about life in Japan, growing up in Ireland, the history of Kenya and many more cultural facts, all from those from there.
“Mobile is a diverse city,” notes Aguiar. “There are many more ethnic communities here than people think. They include Lebanese, Filipinos, Greek, Hispanic and many more.”
Visitors interact and hopefully gain new insight into foreign lands. Bonds are formed. Connections are made.
Aguiar gives an example: “A local Mobile college student might tell a German, ‘I have always wanted to study at a particular university in Germany.’ The visiting European responds, ‘I have a friend there, let me give you his contact information.; A friend is made, a connection is established and an opportunity is created. And just like that, international networking materializes.”
But perhaps the best learning tool, and one of the most popular of the event’s attractions, is the food. And there is lots of it. For, at the International Festival, food is more than a meal. It is a delicious ambassador. Dishes are prepared and recipes are shared as the cuisine’s history is explained. Meals range from the food of kings to everyday fare from the family table. Simmering, sizzling cuisine causes aromas to waft throughout the facility. Inquisitive visitors happily wait to eat and learn about the culture behind the food. But pace yourself. There are 30 food booths.
“Hello and welcome to El Salvador,” a booth spokesman noted during a past festival event. “My son is preparing revuelta – pork, beans and cheese, kind of like a tortilla, fried in a skillet.” And before our very eyes, the delicious dish is made from scratch and served to visitors. El Salvador is a new best friend.
Previously, a French booth featured sole meuniere, a fish dish comparable to flounder fried in flour, for a little taste of Paris. After savoring and then devouring fresh and hot French pastries prepared onsite by a Parisian cook, world peace is at hand.
“Though we are an international festival, many know us as the international food festival,” says Aguiar. “Sampling great food from other countries is a big component of our event and not just because the food is delicious.” People really learn and make friends over the samplings.
She adds, “You sit down and share a tamale with somebody, you become friends. Add music to those tamales and you’re friends for life.”
Here are three such friends. Each are participants in the International Festival. They tell stories and share recipes while cooking. As they stir, mix, bake, fry and serve, we learn and eat.
For more details on the recipes, visit the dishes’ creators at the festival. They are waiting to talk with you. About 30 additional food participants are waiting for you as well. All of these recipes and samplings await where trying new dishes, meeting new friends and learning other cultures bring us closer together. Thanks in part to the Mobile International Festival, it’s a small world after all.
The flavors of South Asia permeate the Bay area thanks to a restaurateur with a passion for his home country.
Salam Lama was born in a remote village in Nepal. He chose America for an education. Arriving in Mobile in 2006, the eighth child of a farming family, he earned a business degree from the University of South Alabama. After graduation, he remained in Mobile.
“Mobile is a very friendly place,” Lama says. “People were welcoming here and accepted me as if Mobile was my hometown. They still accept me.”
Lama came to Mobile alone and was, at times, lonely. He soon discovered his “second family” at the Mobile International Festival. He became a sponsor and represented his roots. “I soon learned that few people in Mobile know anything about Nepal,” he smiles.
“I wanted to change that.”
Inspired by the International Festival, Lama wanted others to learn about his country and culture. “My other goal is to introduce Nepali dishes to Mobile and the festival’s attendees,” he says. “Good food shared and enjoyed with others promotes understanding and opens communication channels and puts us all at ease with each other. The easiest way to promote your country is through food.”
Today, Lama owns Yak, The Kathmandu Kitchen. There are two Yaks. The Mobile site opened in 2012, followed by the Fairhope eatery in 2014. “My restaurants are a way to promote my country and to bring some different tastes to
Mobile,” Lama adds.
A customer favorite is chow mein, for which he kindly shared the recipe.
1 16-ounce packet of uncooked angel hair pasta
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon garlic paste
5 ounces of meat
(chicken, lamb or goat), cut into pieces
1/4 large head of cabbage, chopped
1 large carrot, julienned
Salt to taste
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add angel hair pasta and turmeric, reduce to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
2. Add oil to a pan and then add all remaining ingredients. Cook, stirring for 5 minutes or until the meat is cooked through.
3. Drain pasta and portion on plates. Top with meat and vegetables and serve.
Facts About Nepal
The largest city in Nepal is one of the oldest
continuously inhabited places in the world, founded in the 2nd century AD. It is home to a number of World Heritage Sites and is the gateway to the Himalayas.
Official Language: Nepali
In addition, as many as 123 mother tongues with an ancient history or origin inside Nepal are officially recognized.
Predominant Religion: Hinduism
The name Nepal itself is derived from an ancient Hindu belief that says the people who settled there are the chosen ones of the Hindu sage Ne, and the Primordial Buddha will protect them.
Geologic Features: Mount Everest
At 29,032 feet, the highest peak on earth lies on the Nepal–China border. Seven other of the world’s “eight-thousanders” (meters high) mountains are in Nepal or on its border with Tibet.
Nepal is an active region geologically, suffering from frequent earthquakes, floods and landslides, at times inhibiting major development.
The People: Much of Nepal’s culture is deeply steeped in tradition and religion, but the people’s tolerance has enabled many different faiths and ethnicities to coexist harmoniously.
The Food: Dal (lentils), dumplings and rice dishes are common in Nepal, and their variations depend upon geography, religion and cultural diversity. Pickled items are the favorite accompaniment.
The impressive Chaurasi Byanjan, often served at weddings, features bhat (rice) served on a giant leaf platter surrounded by 84 different Nepali dishes served on small plates.
A frozen treat that originated in Persia is a delicious business opportunity for an Iranian expat.
A native of Esfahan, Iran, Mahin Ghavamian came to Mobile in 1983. She makes creamy, chilly treats the way nature intended it – gelato. Think of it as ice cream multiplied by wonderful.
“Gelato is, of course, well known in Italy,” Ghavamian notes, “but it is also popular throughout Europe and the Middle East.” As owner of Mobile’s Peppermint Gelato & Café, named after her two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Pepper, Ghavamian has hands-on experience with gelato. It is her restaurant’s frosty-featured food. “Last April, I opened my business because there was nothing like it in Mobile. My dream was to make the best quality gelato and to own and run a coffee shop, tea room and gelato shop. I combined the three and added homemade pastries.”
She will serve Persian ice cream at the festival. “In Iran, this is everybody’s household recipe,” she says about the icy concoction. “It reminds me of home because I learned how to make it from my mom.”
Persian ice cream
6 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground saffron
1/4 cup pure rosewater, preferably Sadaf brand.
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Dried roses and pistachio for garnish (Optional)
1. Set a medium bowl in a large bowl of ice water. In another medium bowl, beat the egg yolks until pale, 1 to 2 minutes.
2. In a medium saucepan, whisk the cream with the milk, sugar, salt and saffron. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat, whisking until the sugar is completely dissolved. Very gradually whisk half of the hot cream mixture into the beaten egg yolks in a thin stream, then whisk this mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the custard is thick enough to lightly coat the back of the spoon, about 12 minutes. Don’t let it boil.
3. Strain the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into the bowl set in ice water. Let the custard cool completely, stirring occasionally. Stir in the rosewater and vanilla extract. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the custard and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 4 hours.
4. Pour the custard base into an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the ice cream to a chilled 9-by-4-inch metal loaf pan. Cover and freeze until firm, at least 4 hours.
5. Serve the ice cream in bowls garnished with dried roses or topped with pistachios (optional).
Facts About Iran
The 32nd capital of Persia is today a booming metropolis — the second most populated in the middle east.
Official Language: Persian
Farsi, as it is known in Iran, is not related to Arabic, but rather northern Indian and even some western languages. It is known to have been used as early as 400 B.C.
Predominant Religion: Shia Islam
About 90% of Iranians practice Shi’ism, the official national religion, while the populations of most other Middle Eastern States practice Sunni. The split between the sects happened in 632 A.D. over who should succeed the prophet Muhammad.
Geologic Features: Mount Damavand
Iran is one of the world’s most mountainous countries, containing the Middle East’s highest peak.
A High Plateau
Iran has no major river systems and so trade was traditionally performed by caravan.
Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf
Iran boasts a strategic location, and holds the second largest natural gas supply and the third-largest proven oil reserves.
The People: Iranians of all backgrounds show a strong loyalty to their families and pride themselves on their pragmatism and scientific mentalities.
The Food: Many cultures have contributed to Iran’s traditional cuisine, and dishes on offer vary by region and ethnicity. Rice dishes with meat and vegetables are common, and staple ingredients include dried fruits, nuts and fragrant spices like saffron, cardamom and turmeric.
Peruvian limes — like those used in the famous Pisco Sour — turn fresh fish into one of the delicious staple foods of South America.
Carlos Talavera is from Peru, as is his wife Manuela. He left Lima for Mobile in 2005. “I left partly for the education opportunities here, and partly due to the economic and government unrest in Peru,” he says.
He came to America on a work visa and stayed, bringing his Peruvian culinary expertise with him. “Cooking is a big part of life in Peru, and it certainly was and is, in my life,” Talavera says. “In Peru, families often cook together.” He noted learning most of his cooking skills from his mom and grandmother. Today, cooking is still a team sport. “I cut the meat and vegetables and do the slicing and dicing. My wife, Manuela, prepares most of the recipes. She is usually the one who cooks, but we work together. We are a team.”
Talavera learned about the International Festival from friends. He saw it as a good opportunity to be an unofficial ambassador of Peru. “I want others to learn about my culture just as I learn about yours.”
2 medium red onions
2 ají limo peppers (or habanero chili)
1 1/2 bunches fresh cilantro
2 pounds or more fresh white fish filets
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste
4 fresh lettuce leaves
1. Prepare all the seasonings for the ceviche. Peel the onions and cut into slices. Add to a medium bowl filled with cold water and about a teaspoon of salt. Set aside. Squeeze
the limes in a measuring cup until you get a little more than half a cup of juice. Chop chili into thin strips. Wash and finely chop the cilantro.
2. Cut the fish into half-inch cubes and place them in a large bowl. Add the garlic, salt and pepper to taste. Stir well. Then add chopped vegetables, onions and lime juice and stir well. (When the fish takes on a whitish appearance, it is marinating.) Serve immediately over lettuce leaves.
This dish is traditionally served with two boiled sweet potatoes, one cup fresh boiled corn, and one cup cancha serrana (Peruvian oil-roasted corn snack) or roasted Andean corn.
Facts About Peru
Peru’s capital and largest city is located in a river basin on the Pacific Ocean half way down the country’s coastline. About one-third of Peru’s residents live in the great metropolitan area of this cosmopolitan city.
Official Language: Spanish
The language was introduced in the 1500s with early colonizers.
Predominant Religion: Roman Catholic
Brought over with European missionaries, Catholicism was the state religion until the 1970s. Today Peruvians enjoy religious freedom.
Geologic Features: Andes Mountains
Peru is located in the Central Andres, a part of the longest contiguous mountain range in the world.
The largest lake in South America is also considered the highest navigable lake in the world.
Source of the Amazon
The longest and also largest (by volume) river in the world finds its headwaters in Peru.
The “Lost City of the Incas” is a 15th-Century citadel high in the Andes mountains. It is believed to have been built for the emperor Pachacuti in 1450 and was abandoned one hundred years later, at the time of the Spanish conquests.
The People: Peruvians are welcoming and place a huge emphasis on family, culture and religious activities. They are well known for their pre-Hispanic handicrafts.
The Food: The cuisine is influenced by indigenous ingredients, such as legumes, quinoa and their many varieties of the potato.
The Mobile International Festival will be held Saturday, November 18, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. at The Grounds.
Tickets $5 – $12 online or at the door.