How expat living changed the way I cook

I wouldn’t say that I love to cook, but I do love to eat.  Last night I hauled out a recipe book which was an expat leaving gift.  As I chopped, stirred and simmered I thought about how expat life has influenced the way I cook.

Variety:  Although everyone eats more internationally these days than they used to, I’m sure that living overseas has broadened my tastes.  It’s not just been the cuisine of the countries we lived in, but also that of the many expat friends we made who have introduced us to their favourite recipes in restaurants and in their homes.

Cleanliness:  For a number of years we lived in countries where the tap water wasn’t safe to drink and food handling was questionable.  I quickly learned to sterilize fruit and vegetables by adding a baby bottle sterilising tablet (or a teaspoon of bleach) to a sink full of water and soaking for 20 minutes.  One of the joys of repatriation is not having to do that any more, but I do continue to wash things a lot more carefully than I used to.

Cooking from scratch:  Living without North American convenience foods was a blessing in that it forced me to learn how to cook many things from scratch.  Now I know how, and also how much better the food tastes, I’m reluctant to go back to bottled sauces, packet mixes and take-out.  Cooking “properly” does take more time, so I’m so grateful I can work part-time and indulge my passion for fresh vegetables and home-made dishes.

Substitution:  Although it wasn’t much of a problem in Dubai, chasing down ingredients in Azerbaijan and Egypt was almost a full-time occupation; the “hunter-gatherer” approach to shopping a friend once called it.  As a result I became a master of the art of substitution and must admit I use it still when I can’t face trekking all over town for an unusual spice, or find I’ve run out of something half way through fixing dinner.  Here’s a list I made for myself of some of the more common ones.

Eating less meat:  In 2004 my husband was being pursued for a job in Kazakhstan.  After 3 years in Azerbaijan I suspected the meat there would be equally problematic – of dubious provenance and tough as old boots – so I decided to add a few vegetarian recipes to my repertoire on the assumption that dried beans, lentils and legumes seem to be available most places.  In the end he didn’t take the job, but by then we found we enjoyed eating lighter, healthier, meatless meals.   We’re by no means vegetarian, but do eat a lot less meat than we used to.

Of course, I was very much influenced by the particular countries I lived in, so I’m interested to know if people who lived in different countries also found their cooking style changed.   How did living overseas change the way you eat?


8 thoughts on “How expat living changed the way I cook

  1. This was a very enjoyable article. I’d like to add something else. How about learning to cook without an oven? We don’t realize how much we use the oven instead of the stove top until we don’t have one. You have to learn to adapt recipes and you also learn that the stove top is far more time-consuming than the oven.

    • Good one, Lynne. I’d forgotten about that. Our first stove in Azerbaijan was a Soviet relic and the oven was so dodgy (gas flame flickering back and forth from side to side) that I daren’t use it. But I was able to cheat a bit and use a toaster oven. I cooked dinner parties for 6 in that!

  2. I learned to make the most of seasonal produce … when things are in season they are cheaper and yummier, and it was fun finding out the best ways to take advantage of them. And I think also trying local food, and giving it a go of cooking local meals at home. That’s a skill you’ll never lose.

    • You are right about seasonal produce, but I must admit it came as quite a shock to me to “rediscover” that fruit and vegetables had seasons. I loved “peach month” in Egypt, but wasn’t so wild about “cauliflower month” lol! 🙂

  3. I absolutely do more from scratch and I’ve gotten braver about substitution and invention. It’s less of a challenge to find stuff in Singapore than some other locales, but sometimes translating things like temperature or ingredients can be a challenge.

    I think I’ve also learned how to get by with fewer gadgets. You’ll have to pry my stand mixer from my cold dead hands, but I don’t have all the stupid little gadgets that I had in the US. I don’t have a separate fryer and a this and a that.

    I’ve also become more skilled with kitchen knives.

    • I’m with you on the knives. Now that I’m back in Canada I’m tempted to buy a fancy food processor, but then I think what a pain they can be to clean and I don’t have enough cupboard space for one. I’ve managed so long without. . . why change now?

  4. I completely understand! I’m from the US and live in Belgrade, Serbia now. I’ve introduced my boyfriend and his mother to Mexican food. Unfortunately, EVERYTHING must be from scratch. I prefer this definitely but it definitely takes longer. The “hunter-gatherer” situation is the same here. Especially when dealing with non-regional foods and spices. I can’t explain things like rice crispy treats because they don’t have rice crispies or marshmellows here. I can’t make fudge which many friends ask about. But I’ve introduced them to many other goodies that aren’t in the usual Serbian cuisine that everyone loves. My boyfriend loves to cook. We use many of the recipes (from scratch) that my dad has sent me. My dad used to be a chef so he helps me with substitutions when I’m completely lost and have no idea what to do. It’s definitely a challenge but it’s taught me soooo much about being in the kitchen that I took for granted in the US.

    • I agree, living without so many shortcuts ultimately taught me to be a better cook, but it was still a PIA. 😉

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