One Of The Best Souvenirs From Living Overseas

One of the great joys of travel and living in other countries is the food. I love trying new things and I love adding new foods to the menus I prepare at home for my family and friends.

Food is a bit like scent, (which I suppose makes sense as much of our ability to taste food comes from what we can smell of it) in that it is evocative of certain times and places. When I eat strawberry ice cream I am back in a hot summer in Oklahoma, eating strawberry ice cream on a cone in a frigidly air conditioned Braum’s restaurant with my grandma. When I have French red wines I am back in a mountain pizzeria near Evian, drinking the fantastic local wine and eating pizza next to a fire. When I eat dosa I am back in India having a wonderful curried breakfast on a veranda under gently turning ceiling fans while the insects hum in the humid jungle around me.

Collecting tastes is like collecting any souvenirs but more fun to share with friends and family when you return home.But as much as I love collecting the new flavours, when I’m cooking—whether for myself, my family or guests I certainly don’t forget about flavours from home. I make a great meal of BBQ ribs, coleslaw, home-baked beans, cornbread and fried onion strings. And we do Tex Mex fairly well. My chili is better than the British counterpart in restaurants, and my pancakes with bacon and maple syrup is legendary. No really. My kids’ friends still talk about it and I hear back that they’re now introducing the flavor combo to their friends at university. These flavours that are the comforts of my American childhood are exotic and different to my British family and friends and it’s as much fun to introduce them to these new flavours as it is for me to discover something new overseas.

Not all expats are adventurous with food. And adventurous means different things to different people. I would encourage anyone to push his or her boundaries a bit when traveling or living abroad. But I also despair at these expats who loathe any food from home. Ok, so fish and chips every night if you travel in Spain is a bit closed minded but having food from home from time to time is completely fine!

I’ll be honest; this article was inspired by a conversation with a soon-to-be expat who contacted me through my blog, The American Resident, anxious about what the food in the UK will be like. She asked me loads of questions, including ‘but do they have Cheddar cheese?’ Well, yes. Cheddar is originally English, I told her. But I thought I should also tell her that it might taste slightly different, and I added with enthusiasm that there’s loads more cheeses to try. But, she said, she wasn’t sure if she would like ‘a smelly cheese.’ I reassured her that not all great cheeses are smelly.

She was excited about moving and I was worried she would miss out on one of the most fun aspects of living overseas so I decided to put together some tips for her to help her feel more confident and more prepared. Here is a more general version for all expats:

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1. Restaurants
• Don’t expect international chain restaurants to taste the same in other countries: they use different suppliers and they are preparing food for the tastes of a different population. This is entertaining, not annoying!
• Ask for recommendations from other expats, your neighbours, people you work with. Don’t ask a taxi driver as they often make a commission from restaurants for bringing in the punters.
• Learn local dining customs, e.g. tipping, hosting others, ordering from the menu, changing orders, and so on.
• If you don’t know what something is on the menu, don’t be afraid to ask. Many restaurateurs enjoy talking about their food.
• Of course, in order to enjoy food thoroughly one should take precautions, especially when you first arrive, although in some countries you may have to be wary the whole time you live there. Check on the advice specific to your local country.

2. Home Cooking
• Celebrate your national holidays by inviting other expats, locals or both to your home and making your favourite foods from home.
• Expect to not find all the ingredients you usually use; perhaps other expats can advise on substitutes.
• Learn local dishes and discover favourites. It‘ll be fun to prepare these for family and friends when they visit or when you return home.
• Learn about local customs if you don’t want to make embarrassing mistakes when entertaining at home, or dining in others’ homes.

3. Food shopping
• Find new favourite treats. The local shop doesn’t have your favourite candy bar? Find a new favourite!
• Explore local markets—often a lot less expensive than grocery stores and buying from a market usually means you’re supporting local producers.
• Ask other expats if they know where you can buy food from ‘home’.
• Google ‘online grocery shopping (country)’ to see if there are any grocery stores that offer an online shopping service. You can browse their sites and get a good idea of what products are available and how much they’ll cost.

4. Shipping food overseas
• Send interesting food to people back home. But be careful—it has to be packaged well. Fresh fruit, vegetables and meats won’t work, but biscuits, cookies and sweets are usually fine.
• Don’t bother with chocolate during the warmer months—it will arrive melted.
• Don’t package food items with anything else that has a scent, such as perfumes, candles, incense, etc. The food will absorb the scent, so these items need to be sent separately.

5. Food from home
• Missing a flavour from home? Ask family and friends to send favourite things or look online to see if you can order it through any suppliers in your host country.
• No local online suppliers of treats from your home country? Are there a lot of expats in your host country who would like food from home? This might be a business opportunity for you…
• Remind people that treats from home make good birthday presents while you’re living overseas!
• If you have a favourite dish, don’t forget to pack the recipe and ingredients or implements you need to make it, such as the ‘cup’ measures from the USA. And if you forget, ask someone to post them or bring them when they visit. Share the meal with your new friends or just create the taste of home when you’re craving it.

Top Tips
Food is a great source of pleasure and entertainment! Learning about new dishes and ingredients will only enhance your life overseas as well as when you return home again. Have fun with it!

And readers, I would love to hear more food tips from you.

Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!

Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.

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