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.
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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
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.
- 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.
- 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)
- Gluten-free flour mixes
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
- Natural peanut butter (low sugar; but a homemade version can easily be made)
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