Noor Jehan Ahmad ’26, an international student from Pakistan, worked alongside Cornell chefs to amend family recipes and feed over 2,200 students for Morrison Dining’s Pakistani Night on April 18.
Equipped with Ahmad’s family recipes, Head Chef Josh Holden, Ahmad and the dining staff spent hours preparing a menu of 11 authentic Pakistani foods. Dishes included dal, a lentils dish with coriander, turmeric and chiles; chicken korma, a dish prepared with yogurt, cloves and cardamom and firni, a sweet rice pudding with cardamom, rose water and saffron.
According to Holden, 500 pounds of chicken, 250 pounds of beef and 800 pounds of vegetables were ordered to prepare the meal. Ahmad noted that the dining team was initially concerned that they had ordered too many ingredients. However, many items had completely run out by the end of the night — an unusual occurrence for Cornell Dining.
The celebration also featured live Pakistani music performed by the Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth, a campus organization dedicated to promoting engagement with Indian art, music and culture.
Ahmad described her passion for cooking, adding that her love of preparing food for her family back home led to her interest in sharing her favorite dishes with students on campus.
“Food is a foundational thing that brings people together. [Regardless] of backgrounds, ages, opinions and ideologies, it’s food that can bring different people the same kind of joy,” Ahmad said.
During her time at Cornell, Ahmad said she noticed cultural inaccuracies in international food options at dining halls. Ahmad saw bringing authentic Pakistani food to students as a way to highlight Pakistan’s rich history and culture.
“When people from different countries read the [food] labels in dining halls [and see] their own regions, they get excited, but then when they eat it, it’s very bland,” Ahmad said. “So I wanted to make sure that I bridged that gap.”
Ahmad began working at Morrison in Fall 2022 with the goal of becoming more involved with Cornell Dining. Eventually, Morrison management allowed her into the kitchen to act as an unofficial culinary assistant — a student position only officially available on West Campus.
In the kitchen, Ahmad said she began to notice that the way in which Indian food — which holds some similarities to Pakistani food given their geographic proximity and shared history — was cooked did not match what she had been taught. She recognized the difficulty in maintaining flavor while cooking large quantities of food.
Ahmad’s solution was to bring her own recipes, such as food she cooked in her dorm or snacks she brought from home, to the chefs in an attempt to convince them to let her cook. Through this endeavor, she met Holden and persuaded him to try some of her food.
“[Holden] was so excited. … He showed me a stack of Indian recipes and he [asked] if [my] Pakistani food was similar,” Ahmad said. “If it was, [he asked if I could] make a similar recipe set of foods that [I] had grown up making or that [I] loved.”
In an interview with The Sun, Holden — who has worked with Cornell Dining for almost 19 years — mentioned the same meeting, noting that he was excited to have student involvement and oversight to authentically recreate Pakistani recipes.
“We have this incredibly diverse campus. [I think that] instead of running generic special [meals], [we should] do something meaningful [to] create community,” Holden said. “[I asked Noor] ‘What do you like to cook? Where are you from? Can we represent your culture here? Can we bring a piece of you into this space, and then celebrate that?’”
Over winter break, Ahmad traveled home to Pakistan and collected recipes from family, local chefs and restaurants. Because Morrison Dining feeds so many students, Ahmad also had to ensure the recipes she brought to Holden could feasibly be made for thousands, with available ingredients.
The recipes were then sent to Cornell Dining’s Culinary Wellness and Innovation team, which Holden said vetted the food for allergens and helped source specialty items.
Holden explained that the dining department also has a special events budget to provide for higher costs for such events. In Ahmad’s case, she was given special funding for decorations. She also contacted live performers, so attendees would feel immersed in Pakistani culture as they enjoyed the food.
“Every place you go to in Pakistan is colorful and bright, and I wanted people to feel the same way when they came in,” Ahmad said.
At future events, Ahmad said she wishes to collaborate with other Pakistani students and provide further education about the history and significance of the food. She also hopes her experience can inspire other Cornellians to run similar events.
“Because [Cornell] is a primarily white institution, there are very myopic views of what each region of the world is like,” Ahmad said. “The white, appropriated versions of different cultures [that] we see is all we see.”
Ahmad emphasized the support she felt from Holden and the rest of the dining staff. When testing her recipes, Ahmad said that Holden ensured spices were not toned down to appease the general student body.
Holden noted his appreciation for working with students like Ahmad, so he can ensure the recipes he documents in the system are accurate and authentic. This guidance becomes especially important, he added, when food portions are amplified, as spice proportions can easily become skewed, distorting the flavors of the dish.
Some students, such as Ankitha Kasavaraju ’26, expressed gratitude for the food and experience the night offered.
“As a South Indian who never eats Pakistani food, I really appreciated all the flavors I could taste,” Kasavaraju said. “It was [also] really nice [seeing] so many [other] South Asian people at Morrison. … I would really love to see Morrison continue… listening to students from [diverse] cultures to see how to make meals more authentic.”
Holden said he hopes to expand collaborations with students in the future to capture new recipes and cultivate connections among members of the Cornell community.
“The effect that [special nights] have on the community — not just our guests but the staff too — [is] overwhelmingly positive,” Holden said. “I don’t think that you could ask for something that is more Cornell than creating community within community. [Collaboration with students creates] this continued learning environment, [and] that ability to learn something new and be exposed to other things — it’s just really beautiful.”
Allyson Katz ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].