A Middle Eastern Christmas

IMG_0345They say the grass is greener on the other side of the fence and that certainly seems to be true in our household this Christmas.

Christmases overseas were spent pursuing the British traditions of my childhood – a decorated tree with gifts piled beneath it and dinner of turkey with stuffing, brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes and of course mince pies and Christmas cake in abundance.  None of which was an easy achievement when living in Muslim countries and often involved shopping for vital ingredients and supplies while on summer vacation (Christmas crackers and mincemeat in August?  Hmmm).  It also involved learning to cook a lot of things from scratch, as there were no microwave stuffing mixes or pre-basted turkeys in Baku in 1998.

When we first returned to Canada I enjoyed the convenience of having everything to hand just when I needed it, but this year, having cooked a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving, the thought of doing it all again so soon seemed, well, blah.  A foodie friend (who will also be my guest on Christmas Day) suggested a lamb tagine and the idea caught my imagination.  Why not a Middle Eastern themed Christmas Dinner?  After all, Mary & Joseph wouldn’t have been tucking into turkey and cranberry sauce all those years ago, more like hummus and tabouleh.

So now here I am again tracking down elusive ingredients like tahini paste, sumach and rose water as I prepare for the big day next week.  I’ve pulled out the cook book which friends in Dubai gave me as a leaving present and I’m chopping and blending as I cook from scratch, just as I did in my days in Baku.

Seems no matter where I am, I’m thinking of someplace else.


Friends and food

Where do you keep your recipes?  When I first went overseas I had a motley collection of pages torn out of magazines and handwritten scraps of paper which I tucked inside a 1937 cookbook I’d inherited from my mother.  That old recipe book stood me in good stead as I learned to cook in a country where convenience food was almost non-existent.  In many ways it helped me change the way I cook forever, but in time I grew weary of sorting through all the bits of paper and decided to create my own cookbook of family favourites.

It took time to type them all into my computer, but once that was done I could print them out and put them in a 3 ring binder.  Every time we moved countries I’d ditch the binder (one less thing to pack) and print them out again when I arrived in my new location.  Along the way of course I picked up lots of new recipes from the people I met. These ones were special and I would usually name them for the people who gave them to me.  So I have Olga’s Beans, a wonderful stew of beans, dried fruits and caramelized onions, Milli’s Chicken and Rice, her Louisiana speciality and Angele’s Lemon Meringue Pie, an out-of-this world confection and just as easy to make as a can or packet mix.  My latest version of the 3 ring binder is even decorated with many of their photos.

Today is World Blog Action Day and the topic is food, hence this post.  However I’d also like to use this opportunity to ask you to contribute YOUR recipes to a project I’m involved with which is the Families in Global Transition Cookbook Project.  Proceeds from the sale of the book will help to provide scholarships to their annual conference for students, volunteers and non-profits.  And if you want to know which recipe I contributed, you’ll have to buy a copy 🙂

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?

Expatriate Time Travel

I didn’t expect to travel through time as well as space when we first moved overseas.  Yet that’s exactly what happened when I gave up my job moved overseas to Azerbaijan with my husband and 9-year-old son.  Not only did I move almost 6,000 miles I also travelled back 30-odd years to a time when mothers stayed home, cooked from scratch and met their friends for coffee mornings and afternoon tea.

According to the oft-quoted Permits Foundation survey, of the women who follow their men overseas 90% work before they leave, but only 35% work while they’re on assignment.  I willingly gave up working because at the time I was close to burn-out.  My husband travelled internationally frequently and often for weeks at a time, I had a child who was usually the last to be picked up from daycare yet had reached an age when he needed a parent to support him with homework, I had a house and a large garden to care for and no extended family for support.  So the chance for some time out was just as good an opportunity for me as the career move was for my husband.

I found myself in a place where convenience food didn’t exist, where people still shopped at the markets on a daily basis and no-one had heard of 24/7.  In other words, I became my mother, circa 1960.  It was a huge culture shock, quite apart from the fact that I was in another country.  Thank goodness I had the sense to bring my mother’s edition of “Cookery Illustrated and Household Management “ 1936 edition.  Although I’d often laughed at those instructions that began  “Draw, singe and truss a medium-sized turkey . . . “ I now welcomed the detailed instructions for home-made soups, stews and baked goods.

So what did I learn other than sage & onion stuffing and macaroni and cheese don’t have to come from a box?  Well I instantly noticed an improved quality of life for all 3 of us.  My son went from reading at a grade 2 level to a grade 4 level in less than 6 months.  My husband could enjoy 2 full days of relaxation at the weekends instead of running around with me doing chores.  And I caught up on 9 years of sleep deprivation, worked out on a regular basis, had time to explore my new surroundings and developed a wide circle of  friends.

Looking back, I can see that the volunteer work I threw myself into was an attempt to satisfy the professional working woman in me and I always cringed whenever I faced a form with the box every expatriate spouse dreads:  “Occupation.”  Yet it took a surprisingly long time for coffee mornings to wear thin and a genuine desire to return to the working world to surface.

I’ve just started a new job (my 3rd since repatriating 2 years ago).   Since returning home I’ve travelled forward in time to a place where many of my contemporaries hold high level, professional positions and my struggle to find a niche in the working world has not been easy.  My new position is part-time and not particularly well-paid or high status and yet I’m happy with it, for me, for now because it gives me the best of both worlds I’ve lived in.  I’m very fortunate that living overseas and “time travel” gave me the opportunity  to try out another way of living and the wherewithal to continue to do so now that I’m back.

The Repairman Cometh

On Saturday I realized my refrigerator wasn’t working.  I called a maintenance service and they sheduled an appointment on Monday.  Slightly ahead of the appointed time the repairman arrived and quickly diagnosed the problem.  He had the required part in his van and within half an hour the fridge was working again – no fuss, no muss.

I couldn’t help but imagine how this would have played out in Baku, Cairo or Dubai.  To begin with, the repairman wouldn’t have shown up on Monday.  After staying home until Wednesday I would have finally risked a quick dash to the grocery store, at which point the repairman would call and tell me he was standing on my doorstep.  There wouldn’t have been just one repairman either.  They always come in twos or threes.  An “engineer” to decide what to do, another guy to do the work and a third one to carry the tools – a plastic shopping bag containing a screwdriver, a hammer and a tube of silicone sealant.  After disassembling my fridge, the engineer would have told me “Fridge not working, madam”  and at that point they would probably have insisted on taking it away to their workshop for a week or more, or at best left for several days while hunting down a replacement part somewhere in the local souq.  When the fridge was finally fixed it would be covered in black fingermarks and there’d be a crack in the tiles on the kitchen floor but I’d be so grateful to have it working again I wouldn’t dream of complaining.

Maybe repatriating isn’t so bad after all.

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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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Expat Christmas

All over the world expats are preparing to celebrate Christmas in another culture.  It can be a bittersweet experience, particularly for those who are away from home for the first time.  On the one hand you are missing friends, family and the familiar traditions of home.  But on the other hand there may be local customs you can join in and new friends who can sometimes seem as close as family due to shared experiences. 

Our first expat Christmas was held in Baku, in a predominantly Muslim country and where the few Russian Christians celebrate the Orthodox Christmas on January 7.  Most expats had left for vacation over the holiday period and the handful of us who remained decided to get together for a potluck Christmas dinner.  We had several nationalities attending and as a result had a wonderful range of dishes.  We had brought a birthday cake as my son is a “Christmas baby” and unable to find birthday candles in the local stores I’d brought a few small sparklers to light.  Unfortunately they sprayed with cake with metallic spots, but we just scraped off some of the frosting and ate it anyway!  After dinner we turned out the lights and sang carols by candlelight, a truly magical memory.

The next two Christmases were spent in the same rather grim temporary apartment in Dubai – the first time we were enroute to Cairo and the second time were enroute back to Dubai.  With all our household goods in transit, a mini pre-decorated Christmas tree on the coffee table had to suffice.

Subsequent Christmases in Dubai fared much better.  We made some very close friends and so always had someone to share Christmas Dinner with.  When our son headed off to university, he’d always visit us over the holidays which made it extra special.  And although you might not expect it to be so in a devoutly Muslim country, in fact Christmas is well celebrated in Dubai.  Many expats say there are more festivities and decorations than in their home countries, where political correctness has frowned them in recent years.

This year we’re celebrating in our home in Canada for the first time in 5 years.  I’m looking forward to pulling out my old tree decorations, some dating back to my childhood, but many purchased or given to us while living overseas.  There are the beautiful blown glass ones from Egypt, the delicate handmade lace ones from Azerbaijan, and the scruffily embroidered stocking I made in the UAE but which brings back happy memories of the “Stitch & Bitch” group which was such a support for me when I first arrived.  It’s going to be great to celebrate at home after so long away, but there will definitely be a toast to absent friends at my dinner table this year.

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