Food has a strange hold over us. All over the world, it’s a common bond, but our relationship with food is complex and subjective; it’s so much more than just fuel for our bodies. It’s used to express control, comfort, love, satisfaction, principles, culture; it spills over into so many areas it’s literally, as well as figuratively, messy.
If the food sucks, forget it!
As any traveller knows, no matter how alien the environment, how inscrutable the people, a meal of something sustaining and comforting can make us see things in a more positive light. And so it follows that however wondrous our surroundings and hospitable the host, if the food sucks, forget it! It’s my husband’s #1 reason for not wanting to work in China – I think he’s seen too much TV footage of insects on skewers.It’s no surprise then that food tops the list of things expats miss most. A familiar feature of expatriate life is the promise of gastronomic contentment contained in the aptly-named ‘comfort package’, a parcel of familiarity from the womb-like bounty of a faraway homeland whose inhabitants amusedly learn that the most innocuous of foodstuffs can confer instant ecstasy on a travel-worn heart. Sent to an international address, a common supermarket staple will elicit gratitude and joy worthy of a winning lottery ticket and secure the sender a lifetime seat in the affections of the grateful recipient.
What’s your poison?
Everyone has their weakness, the item that brings a light to their eyes and melody to their voice when they speak of it. For some it’s Cheerios, for others Marmite. For me it’s Cadbury’s chocolate and Twinnings Assam Tea. The Canadian Cadbury’s has a totally different taste (the disappointment was overwhelming when I first bit into it) and affordable Assam tea is hard to find. My other half pines for Branston Pickle and Iron Bru – both available here (in the smallest possible size) if you have something to remortgage.
But people (expats in particular) are highly adaptable and it’s interesting to see how the list of “Things We Miss From Home” slowly diminishes over time as we learn to make our own or find foreign alternatives. And every item for which a replacement is found makes you feel that much more resourceful and resilient, as though you’ve taken on the Goliath of international travel and triumphed. “I’m a success. My functionality in distant lands is no longer shackled to the availability of Hob-Nobs!”
Learning to live without
On arriving in Canada we were dismayed to discover a dearth of dilute-able juice drinks. Called ‘squash’ back home, we’d get through gallons of Robinson’s sugar-free Apple & Blackcurrant – it was a great way to keep the children hydrated and my husband and I toted pint glasses of pink refreshment everywhere, from bedside tables when reading to beside flowerbeds when gardening.
The only thing we could find close to squash was Roses Lime Cordial, but a small bottle cost the best part of ten dollars. We did unearth a dusty bottle of Ribena from some obscure supermarket shelf once – it cost the earth and didn’t taste as good as childhood memory testified. The kids were bewildered by our veneration of the sticky purple gloop and actually preferred water given the choice – conversion complete!
Here, fruit-juices or sugar-laden fruit punches and energy drinks (Gatorade, Powerade, Rock Star) are popular, along with iced tea and the regular sodas like Coke, Sprite & root beer. Luckily we arrived in the summer, and the heat and humidity meant the kids were grateful for anything wet – we learned never to leave the house without a bottle of water or five.
Firmly back in the fold
Squash, being a heavy liquid, didn’t lend itself well to overseas transport so we were forced to adapt, but tea was up there at the top of the list of requested items and my basement is home to a tower of Twinnings boxes bearing postal scars (a dent here, a squashed corner there).
However, in the past few months Walmart widened the parameters of their mission to extort sentimental homesick expats by introducing a shockingly overpriced British section in their International Food aisle. Referring to British fare as ‘International’ makes me smile every time – to me it means exotic flavors, mouthfuls of heat and fruit and vegetables with outlandish names, none of which are readily associated with food from home, but hey, I’m not thinking like a Canadian, am I. Did you know HP sauce is sold as a marinade here? A marinade?!
Now we can fall upon Yorkshire Tea, PG Tips and a pack of Rich Tea or Digestives, with all the frenzied desperation of a desert traveller scaling yet another featureless dune only to discover a verdant oasis spread before him.
We stand facing these shelves, lips speaking the names with joyful reverence, for quite some time. Tunnocks teacakes and caramel wafers, Curly-Wurlys, Twirls, Robinsons jam, Golden Syrup, Birds Custard, Custard Creams, Club bars, Heinz Baked Beans ($2.17 a tin!). Sometimes we sway imperceptibly, totally immersed in the sheer spiritual nourishment of the experience.
Like a shrine, we visit every time we’re in the store, whether or not we want anything. It’s comforting enough somehow to come and recite the litany and drink in the familiar packaging with parched eyes.
Ha! We thought we were hardcore after three years of virtual deprivation but the sudden availability of Cadbury’s Dairymilk on Canadian soil has reduced us again to food industry acolytes, and Kraft acolytes at that (oh the ignominy!), since the takeover in 2010.
What do you miss most when you’re abroad? Share your comfort package Top 3 in the comments below…
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations."
Read Aisha's other Expat Focus articles here.