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The Must-Have Lists For Expats – And Maybe Your Pantry

Expats often pack their suitcases full of their favorite foods from home. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Expats often pack their suitcases full of their favorite foods from home. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Home away from home. World Cup fans can think back to the lands of their ancestors and use food to recall family memories. But what happens when you’ve moved overseas, specifically to Asia? Inevitably one of the first lists you start is the food you need to pack so you can bring that “taste of home” with you. For my wife, a specific brand of tea tops the list.

We have moved to major tea-producing countries in recent years, including China and India, yet she insists on bringing a stash of her favorite tea, arguing the tea bags of the same brand in our new home are simply not the same. And I have to admit, she has a point — manufacturers use different formulas for the same product to cater to local preferences and tastes.

I can guarantee that in the luggage of most expats moving between countries is some food item. These products often reveal a glimpse of the simple things that matter in your life, things you feel you cannot live without. Among your clothing purchases, hard-to-find toiletries and other belongings, there’s a treasure trove of goodies, such as wine gumdrops, marshmallow Peeps, Easter chocolates or your family’s homemade preserves or chutneys.

As you unpack your shipment, you may wonder what made you decide to bring certain items. One friend shared how puzzled she was that she had purchased a large quantity of Rice Krispies and marshmallows, as she did not regularly eat either. A few months later, she realized she thought she would have a regular craving for Rice Krispies squares.

As you settle into a new country, exploring local food markets and tasting new dishes are invaluable ways to learn about the culture and place you now call home. As exciting as this is, it can be a challenge for many to eat unfamiliar foods at every meal.

During the early days of what can be a stressful transition, or when you have a bout of homesickness, it’s natural to turn to the food that nourishes your soul, that you feel keeps you centered and provides you with the comfort of  “home.”

Expats look to friends, family to deliver their favorites

When family or friends visit, they become food mules, transporting ingredients you can use to prepare a treasured dish. Sometimes they may be hesitant, as my Mexican friend explained when she shared the difficulty of acquiring freshly ground masa because relatives were concerned immigration authorities would think it was cocaine.

Others will go to great lengths. I was privileged to share a meal at a friend’s house of  “imported” Canadian beef that was frozen, wrapped in newspaper and packed in a visitor’s luggage for the 24-hour trip. It arrived fully frozen.

In talking with my expat friends, I’ve discovered that the longer you live overseas, the smaller and more focused your must-have food list becomes. It’s not that your cravings disappear. Many are simply satisfied on vacations or trips home. Rather, as expats, we learn to adapt our wants, finding somewhat suitable substitutes and becoming more resourceful or simply making do. You also learn that the limited space in your (or your mules’) luggage is valuable and reserved only for prized essentials.

Although more specialty shops are opening with a limited selection of imported goods, allowing expats to more easily access essentials like olive oil, olives, cured meats, cheeses, chocolate and occasionally specialty grains and flours, often the products are of average quality, sometimes stale and cost anywhere from two to five times the price you pay at home. Another challenge is they are not regularly stocked, and when they are sold out it may not be available for another few months or longer.

It’s that time of year when many of you are in a state of transition and thinking about what to bring with you to your new home. Apart from reading expat blogs or talking to acquaintances who have lived in your new country, the best resource to find out what staple ingredients are available is to consult a cookbook about the food of the country you are moving to. A quick read of the glossary and pantry section will give you a good idea of items you can easily and affordably purchase.

Below is a list of what I like to call “expat pantry essentials” — items either hard to find or that tend to be really expensive when living in Asia. Use it as a guide to help you focus your needs as you prepare for your move overseas and so you don’t question why you bought it when you finally unpack.

Expat pantry essentials

Baking essentials

The greatest complaint I hear from expats is that their baking recipes do not work. Sometimes it has to do with poor-quality ovens, but I think most of the time it has do with the ingredients. Baking powder can be bought virtually everywhere, but the chemical composition of the ones overseas can be quite different than the ones you may be used to.

  • Baking powder
  • Baking soda
  • Real vanilla extract
  • Dry yeast
  • Chocolate chips (cut-up chocolate bars are great alternatives.)
  • Dried fruits (specifically currants, cranberries, pears, apples)
  • Food coloring/dyes for icing
  • Sprinkles for decorating cakes


Coriander, cumin, cinnamon, black pepper, turmeric and cardamom are generally available. If they are only found whole, they can easily be ground to make a powder. The spices and spice blends below are much harder to find.

  • Saffron
  • Dukkah
  • Zatar
  • Smoky paprika/pimenton
  • Kosher salt/Maldon-style sea salt
  • Indian spice mixes or specialty spices (garam masala, chaat masala, amchur powder, anardana powder)
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Dried fenugreek leaves (methi)


Chilies may not seem an obvious choice, but each chili has its own unique flavor profile. This is particularly important when trying to make dishes with a Latin American flavor.

  • Chipotle chilies in adobo sauce or dried
  • Jalapeño chilies in brine
  • Dried chilies from the southern U.S., Mexico, Latin America and India

Grains, pulses and specialty flours

These items tend to be much more expensive than in your home country, especially if they are organic. When not regularly purchased by other expats, there is a greater chance of them sitting on the shelf becoming stale.

  • Quinoa
  • Farro
  • Freekah
  • Flax seeds (whole or ground)
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Pulses/lentils (Du Puy lentils, urad dal, black beans)
  • Rye flour
  • Bean and nut flours (chickpea, hazelnut, chestnut)
  • Masa
  • Gluten-free flour mixes

Bottled products

Red, white, and balsamic vinegars are available. Specialty vinegars are not. Natural syrups are much more expensive. You may be able to find one or the other with marmite and vegemite, but lovers of each will tell you they are not the same. Scandinavians need the occasional taste of pickled fish.

  • Pomegranate molasses
  • White balsamic vinegar
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Maple syrup
  • Agave syrup
  • Molasses
  • Natural peanut butter (low sugar; but a homemade version can easily be made)
  • Marmite
  • Vegemite
  • Herring

Coffee and specialty teas

A comforting, familiar cup of coffee or tea each morning often helps prepare you for the challenges ahead in your day. Bringing your favorite from home eases the daily transitions.

  • Coffee (specialty/decaffeinated)
  • Rooibos tea
  • Preferred tea brands from home
  • Herbal teas

Specialty alcohol and bitters

Traditional liquors such as vodka, gin, rum, bourbon and cognac are typically available. National liquors such as aquavit, arak, pisco, schnapps, slivovitz, tequila or bitters will be much harder to find. A packed bottle or two and duty-free purchases are typical  for the expat.

Seeds for vegetables and herbs

Small seed packets of hard-to-find vegetables such as kale, Swiss chard, assorted lettuces or Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, sage, tarragon and Italian parsley are invaluable if you have an area to plant a small garden because it will be rare to find such ingredients in local markets.

Main photo: Expats often pack their suitcases full of their favorite foods from home. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Zester Daily contributor Cameron Stauch is a Canadian chef living in Hanoi, Vietnam, who prefers to cook globally but source locally. In that spirit, he is eating and cooking his way around Southeast Asia in search of cooks and producers who are focused on preserving and enriching their local culinary ingredients and traditions. In Canada, he cooks for the Governor General of Canada, where he features Canadian heritage ingredients to create dishes and menus that have been enjoyed by many foreign dignitaries, including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and the emperor of Japan.

  • Ken Fletcher 7·13·14

    Silly article. Presumably, if someone is an expat in India, for example, they won’t find it difficult to find Indian spices.

    If I am a UK-born expat now living in Italy or France, I’m going to find Mediterranean herbs easy to find.

    Or a US or Canadian expat living in Central America might just find the chili peppers you mention.

    In fact most of the ingredients you list are more easily found abroad than in the USA or Canada.

    And what about expats in the USA or Canada. You do realise it’s two way traffic, don’t you?


  • Jamie Schler 7·13·14

    Funny, because as I was leaving for my yearly trip back “home” to the US, my son requested that I bring him back 2 boxes of Fruit Loops. Cameron is right when he says that the longer we live overseas the lesser the need (crave, desire) to carry those home comfort foods back with us to have all the time. I do now get my fix when I visit my family. But he is right that cooking and baking supplies, cake pans, spices, etc are essentials and I always bring back quite a bit of those when I return to France.

  • Cameron Stauch 7·13·14

    Ken Fletcher, thanks for reading the article and your comments. The article was specifically intended for expats living in Asia and was not clearly indicated (note: edits have been added to indicate this). Much appreciated.

  • Deborah Doane 7·13·14

    Having lived ‘abroad’ for years (UK from Canada) even there, there were things that you will always import from your ‘home country’. President’s choice chocolate chips, maple syrup and Pacific Smoked salmon were my imports from Canada. Now in India, there are of course things I bring in, but very few. I completely agree with dried yeast — its terrible here. I have, however, found fresh yeast easily at bakery suppliers. I’ve adapted most things for baking and cooking using local ingredients — including mexican food (Jalapeños easy to find). I find that you learn how to make a lot more things from scratch — like fresh goat’s cheese, or homemade jam for example. Aside from missing really good chocolate, and an abundance of decent cheese (though you can get good cheese, its just expensive) — the one thing I haven’t been able to track down and realise that I miss terribly is horseradish. Not something I thought of before I left….so have now ordered some sherpas from the UK to bring me some. Wasabi, which seems to be available, just isn’t the same. Of course, when I go back to the UK, I’m sure there are things that I’ll be importing from India too!

  • Kenneth Gallaher 7·15·14

    So true. We had friends who moved to Auckland NZ for six months.
    We planned to visit them.
    Even before I offered – which I was going to do – I got a request for Dash spice mix and – of all things Goo-Gone. New Zealanders use impossilby sticky price labels and no Goo-Gone.

  • David Kyffin 7·16·14

    Cameron, thanks for this list, as a diplomat yet to be posted abroad it is useful to have this kind of a checklist. Just one thing though, your blurb at the bottom mentions that you have served foreign dignitaries, “including Queen Elizabeth”. As Queen Elizabeth is the Queen of Canada I don’t think it is quite accurate to refer to her as foreign. Otherwise, a question: are you aware of anything in Canada that expats here have a hard time finding at a reasonable price?

  • Cameron Stauch 7·16·14

    Hi David. Thanks for your feedback. I think for expats living here in Canada the challenge will be more about can they find the ingredients they would like than the pricing. That being said I am sure that the goods from their home country would, in general, be more expensive here in Canada (due to shipping/ taxes). Thanks for pointing out the ‘inaccuracy’ -will change. Best of luck with your future postings.

  • Bernard Scott 7·21·14

    Cameron, you reaffirm what many of us expats typically have to learn for ourselves through direct experience. Surprisingly, your list is quite accurate for the items that I miss. Dry yeast may exist in Hanoi, but difficult to find. I also missed good peanut butter until someone suggested just making my own with bulk peanuts and a blender. Good bourbon is something that I have also missed here. While one can purchase decent bourbon brands, there is no assurance that it is genuine. And many such products here are counterfeit.

  • Leona 7·22·14

    I just came back from the UK and packed 15 packets of Irish sausages, a 2kg ham, back bacon, black and white pudding, gammon steaks, sausage meat to make sausage roles, wholemeal pittas. Don’t get me started on the crisps and chocolate I brought back. Always crave food from home. I could open my own shop! Thanks for a lovely article which makes me feel a little less crazy.

  • Shanthi 8·10·14

    Was very surprised to see seeds packets in the list!