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In this cultural stew, trading ideas and recipes

Mubashir Ghani Khawaja, 15, cooks dinner twice a week for his Maynard host family. Mubashir Ghani Khawaja, 15, cooks dinner twice a week for his Maynard host family. (Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe)
By Aaron Kagan
Globe Correspondent / January 13, 2010

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MAYNARD - Chicken is sizzling on a burner and the scent of cardamom, ginger, and turmeric fill the room. Pakistani exchange student Mubashir Ghani Khawaja is preparing a fiery curry known as qorma (or korma) and has taken over the kitchen of his American host family.

Khawaja’s host brother, Daniel, age 3, pretends to shoot Spider-Man webs from his hands (he’s wearing Superman pajamas). “It’s kind of an unusual household,’’ says Kelli Kirshtein, Mubashir’s host mother and an adjustment counselor at Concord Carlisle High School. “We have Superman flying around, a cultural exchange student, and two mothers.’’

Kirshtein lives with her longtime partner, Wendy Angus, a faculty assistant at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Kirshtein and Angus are the parents of two children adopted from Vietnam and Cambodia. Even the dog, a rescued Shih Tzu-Yorkie mix named Stewie, is cross-cultural.

“What could be better?’’ asks Khawaja, 15, a native of the bustling city of Rawalpindi in the province of Punjab. He’s stirring yogurt into an aromatic mixture in the pan. “If you want to experience America, you have to go deep into America.’’

Khawaja is attending Maynard High School for one year courtesy of Youth Exchange and Study, called the YES program. YES was created in 2002 by the State Department to foster relationships with predominantly Muslim countries. When Khawaja learned that he had won the scholarship, his mother - the one in Punjab - decided it was time for him to learn how to cook.

“Before the program I didn’t cook as much,’’ says Khawaja, a lean teenager with wavy black hair. He didn’t need to. “Mom was there.’’ But when his own mom wasn’t going to be around, he decided he should know a few of her specialties. “I knew I couldn’t change to a totally American food style right away, so I learned to cook partly to prepare myself.’’ Khawaja makes dinner at least twice a week for his American family, though not all of them can handle the heat.

“Pakistani food is a lot spicier,’’ he says, if you compare it to typical American food. “People eat spicy food in that part of the world because they can’t live without it.’’

The capsicum content of his qorma is proof. Though the dish contains 10 spices - part of a blend he buys that includes cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and turmeric - one sings louder than all the rest: chili pepper.

The exchange student has adjusted to American food. His favorite aspect of this new cuisine? “You could say junk food - and pancakes.’’

“A lot of the kids are not accustomed to how sweet our desserts are, but the excess sugar and the excess salt they find very distinctive, and they love it,’’ says Laura Walta, who is a YES representative for Mubashir and 12 other exchange students in New England.

While food is not technically part of the curriculum, it plays a large role in the experience of most students. “Food is one of the most obvious cultural differences,’’ says Walta, a resident of Methuen. “It’s one of the first things that the kids notice, but also one of the things that they adapt to most easily.’’

In her four years volunteering with YES, Walta has witnessed the organization’s power to create change. “It’s one of those programs where it’s a spoon of sand, but over time you move mountains,’’ she says. Walta has noticed that students who begin with negative preconceptions of the United States eventually lose them.

“The world’s advancing toward a global village, and the differences are less,’’ says Khawaja. “People are trying new things, they’re more curious, and it’s a positive.

“Americans try Pakistani food, Pakistanis try American food,’’ he says, “and it’s a great thing.’’

For more information on the YES program, go to exchanges.state.gov/youth/programs/yes.html.