I have to admit that I was a horrible, horrible chef when I first moved abroad. I was 24 years old and a graduate student. I made such creations as “pasta with pine nuts” and “boiled potatoes with tomato sauce”. My family still jokes about that time I tried to heat up broccoli on the stove without water.
But that changed when I became an expat. As soon as I moved to Nigeria, I realized that I had to learn how to cook. Or accept eating hummus from a can every night. Or risk having the runs for the entire time from eating out.
So I bought a basic cookbook (The Ministry of Food, by Jamie Oliver) and taught myself to make a couple of basic dishes. My boyfriend – now husband – was wildly impressed with my progress (and I like to think that’s not why he married me).
So I started cooking in Nigeria and never stopped. I picked up a few new recipes in each country I lived.
Nigeria is not famous for its food by the way. It’s the former French colonies that have a pretty great cuisine; the former English colonies got kind of screwed. Of course they all got screwed, but that’s a totally different topic. Anyway, I enjoyed Nigerian red stew a lot. I even (temporarily) increased my tolerance for spiciness by about 500% to be able to eat it. I found a pretty great red stew recipe online in case you're interested. Usually I eat it with plain white rice, but it’s even better with jollof rice and fried plantain.
Our next posting was Uruguay, which is a country where people eat about a pound of beef per day. There are 9 million grass-fed cows for a population of 3 million people. I consider myself a flexitarian, so all that meat was a bit much for me. But my husband perfected the Uruguayan-style barbecue, called asado, and we still eat like that every so often. It’s great for parties, because it is a social way of eating. Whenever a piece of meat is ready, the grill-chef carves it up on a wooden plank and places it in the center of the table for everyone to pick from. Side dishes include chimichurri, grilled provolone, bell peppers filled with egg and ham, and sweet potatoes with glazing.
Our third tour was in Pakistan, where the curries are beyond delicious. Every lunch felt like a party: dahl soup with fresh ginger, cilantro and hot green pepper; fresh nan bread; incredible curries in all colors; biryani with chicken. I couldn’t get enough of it. Until I got pregnant and I suddenly couldn’t stand any of it anymore! The smell alone made me wanna… you know. Maybe because the curries were pretty greasy.
And that’s where we get to the point that I actually wanted to make in this blog post, which is: I find it impossible to get used to a foreign cuisine.
I noticed that I can enjoy new, local dishes about ten times, maybe even twenty times, but eventually I tire of it. Somehow, my body allows me a brief honeymoon period with foreign food, but then tells me to get back to “normal”. And that’s how I end up cooking at home, rather than eating out, eating of the same types foods over and over again.
Sometimes the difference between what I consider “normal” food and what is locally available isn’t even that great. For example, in Uruguayan restaurants I could find most of the Mediterranean dishes I used to eat, except that they never put any spice in the food. I missed pepper so much that, at some point, I considered bringing my own to the restaurant. Then I realized that in the end it’s really about a different kind of taste. Even if I could get pizza and pasta in Uruguay, it simply didn't taste the way I preferred it.
Another examples is curries, like the ones I ate in Pakistan. At home, I make Indian/Pakistan-style curries all the time and they make me feel great. But when I eat curry at an Indian/Pakistani restaurant, I get extremely nauseous afterwards because they put so much ghee or other grease in it.
There is just something about my own, “normal” food that is impossible to shake off. I can’t believe how boring I am! For breakfast I eat yoghurt, and it has to be a certain style of yoghurt. Not Greek yoghurt and definitely not Armenian matsun. What I want is not available anywhere, so I end up making it myself. For lunch, I eat bread, and it has to be dark bread. Not the sweet, white stuff that seems to be the international standard. So – again – I end up making it myself in my bread maker (it’s not great, but acceptable).
I have often wondered if my pickiness is something universal. I simply don’t know. But I do know from observation that there are a lot of expats like me. For example, I see my American colleagues ordering hamburgers and tacos at the embassies’ cafeteria all the time, even when healthier, local food is sold there too (for half the price).
Still, it’s possible that I am more particular about food than most people. I'm not happy about it though. It’s not practical to be picky.
In an effort to understand my issues with food I read a couple of books that explain differences in taste. One of those books is called Suffering Succotash, which I found pretty illuminating (although not on the topic of foreign foods). I learned that I probably have something called a sensitive palate" and that I am some kind of "supertaster" (even though I'm terrible at describing what I'm tasting).
Another book I read is called The Jungle Effect. It talks all about foreign food and makes it really accessible. I highly recommend reading it – it will get you cooking healthy for sure!
My conclusion is that, even as I try to expand my horizons by trying new and exotic recipes, I’ll probably always end up eating the same types of foods. My dad has an interesting theory about it, actually. He says that our bodies are made from the stuff our ancestors ate, and that we thrive best on those particular foods. So if we suddenly switch to a different cuisine - even if it hits all the right food groups - our bodies don't know what to do with it. So the best I can do is adjusting foreign dishes to my personal taste, and becoming a better cook in general so that my repetitive meals are at least prepared well.