The house was infused with the smell of cooking spices. It was warm — a little muggy — and buzzing with festive people at various stages of eating.
Some, either finished or taking a break from their meal, were gathered around video games in the living room. Others crowded the dining table, waiting patiently with bowls that only had a little broth swirling around the bottom.
Fresh food — including handfuls of spinach and mushrooms, chunks of pork and beef, tofu and rice noodles — was re-added to two woks that were filled high with bubbling broth. As bowls were filled, sauces such as fish oil and chili paste were added on top, all coming together to make an Asian hot pot.
The event was a group effort for the Thai-Vietnamese Student Association, and a staple part of its club-event roster.
The group cooks together several times a quarter, routinely creating Thai and Vietnamese dishes including hot pots, pho and spring rolls.
However, while vegetables and meats are easy to find, certain ingredients aren’t widely available in the San Luis Obispo area.
“Like, for spring rolls, you really need rice paper,” English freshman Anne Marie Sohn said. “And you can’t really get good rice paper in San Luis Obispo, because we don’t really have an Oriental market here.”
So club members will often travel as far as LA or the Bay Area and visit markets to get important ingredients, especially spices.
“Last weekend, one of our board members went home, and went to the Asian market — the 99 Ranch Market — to get a lot of the spices for (the hot pot),” biological sciences sophomore and club secretary Alice Dornblaser said.
Though club funds are sometimes used to help pay for food items, ingredients are mostly brought in by individual members, who pay out of pocket so that the group will have enough to eat.
Cooking, eating and cleanup is also a combined effort during the bring-your-own-bowl event, taking about four to six hours, according to Dornblaser, who added that the 20 pounds of meat alone took about two hours to butcher.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “But it’s definitely worth it.”
Creating food together is an important part in bonding for some of the club members, giving them a sense of community at Cal Poly.
“It’s kind of sad, eating alone and cooking by yourself,” Sohn said. “So, having a club where you can always have company … It’s a good stress reliever, and it’s a good way to put yourself out there.”
Furthermore, because the club is so small, that sense of community can be built up quickly.
“I came to college not knowing a lot of people,” Dornblaser said. “But I came here (to the club), and it feels like family. Everyone’s super nice. It feels like home — like a home away from home.”
Club president and electrical engineering sophomore Charles Kobashigawa explained that of all the dishes that the club makes, he prefers pho nights.
“It reminds me of home a lot,” he said. “My mom used to make it a lot, and when (the club) makes it, I think it’s really good.”
The recipes are generally repeats within the club, and the meals are either a once-a-year or once-a-quarter deal — depending on how difficult or expensive they are to make. But input from club members is encouraged, and soup bases, sauces and proteins are commonly added or changed because of it.
“We definitely share recipes,” Kobashigawa said. “We have a lot of input at the beginning of the quarter, where we’ll ask, like, what kind of soup they want. And they’ll just shout out: ‘I want this,’ or ‘Let’s do this kind of broth.’ And we’ll take those things into account.”
The Thai-Vietnamese Student Association is small compared to other cultural clubs, so taking input to make everyone happy is a little easier. It also means that the meals can be more intimate, taking place at a former club member’s house as opposed to an event center or a large open space.
“We’re big enough to make a party, but small enough that it can be contained,” Sohn said.
And while the nights are generally centered around one dish, Sohn added that she’d like to see the club expand the menu a little by trying a potluck-style dinner.
“Everybody would make different Thai-Vietnamese dishes,” she said. “I think it would be really fun — really experimental.”
But altogether, just being able to come together and share a meal is the important part of the experience.
“It’s just good to cook together and eat together,” Sohn said. “Because you do that with your family, and there’s a reason that you would eat with people and not with [just] yourself.”