Pining for food from home

One of the focal points of Christmas, as with most celebrations around the world, is FOOD.  Even after feeding 7 for dinner last night, my refrigerator is still bursting at the seams, and serious eating will have to continue through New Year if we’re to get rid of the stuff.

As I gathered the necessary ingredients for my traditional Christmas fare, it reminded me how important food is to expats.  While we may all enjoy sampling local specialties and adding new recipes to our personal cookbooks, the desire for typical food from home seems to grow in inverse proportion to our inability to find it in our new expat location. 

The things I pined for most in Baku were lettuce and broccoli, although the abundance of fruits in the summer almost made up for them.  A friend from Louisiana used to airfreight herself a cooler full of meat packed in dry ice once a year.  My neighbour from Texas returned from her annual vacation with a small shipment of “essential” food items, thanks to an employer with a generous shipping allowance.  She used to pay her babysitter with a packet of Duncan Hines cake mix and a can of frosting and one year she gave us a six-pack of Kraft Dinner (macaroni & cheese) – bliss!

No matter where we’ve lived, there’s always been a jungle telegraph amongst expat women on the prowl for familiar treats from home.  Even in Dubai, where the diverse population gives rise to a very broad selection, Australians are hunting for Vegemite, the British scour the shelves for strong English tea bags and the Americans  hoard canned pumpkin ready for Thanksgiving.  Each nationality seems to have its own essential comfort food.  Why do these small items become so important when we’re far from home?  Why do we haul back suitcases full of chocolate chips, spices and gravy browning (wrapped in at least 3 layers of plastic) when we return from vacation?  Are we really so poor at adapting to a new culture?

Personally I don’t think so.  For me it’s always been important to make my home away from home a bit of a cocoon – a safe place where I can retreat when haggling in the bazaar or dicing with death on the roads overwhelms me.  Much as I love interacting with new cultures, making friends with the locals and learning new languages, at the end of the day it’s lovely to come home, shut the door and retreat into “my world” for a while.  And an important part of that is familiar food. 

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3 thoughts on “Pining for food from home

  1. I use to hunt for French food when I first came to Canada but I pretty much gave up now. Either it’s really expensive (i.e. cheese) either it just doesn’t taste the same (i.e. butter croissants).

    But I developed a lot of new Canadian addictions!

  2. I have wild rice and cranberry sauce brought or sent from America, and if I want a pumpkin pie, I use the fresh pumpkins available year-round in Morocco (for use in Couscous).

  3. During my first year in Japan, I pined for things like canned pumpkin and chocolate chips. Gradually, though, I learned how to make do without them. If I can find sweet potatoes, I make sweet potato pie instead. Sure it’s different, but with the right spices, it’s very close to pumpkin. Turks don’t eat a lot of turkey and it’s hugely overpriced here, so I stuff a chicken instead. The one thing I DO travel with, though, is Chinese black beans and Japanese miso, soybean paste. My kids can’t live without miso shiru or mabo dofu, and those two components are tough to find. And I’ve generally got dried cranberries or blueberries in my suitcase too.

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