(photo by Salwa Hubais)
I love those moments in which foodways and culture interact in ways that take me by surprise. When I lived in Cyrus, a friend from India kept trying to find “Indian Chinese,” Chinese food spiced the way it is in India. I didn’t really understand what she meant until I moved to the Arabian Peninsula and realized that what I had thought of a “Chinese” was really “American Chinese”; there is no General Tso’s chicken outside of North America!
A non-American friend asked me why all American breakfast foods are spiced with cinnamon in the same way I wonder why people in the UK insist on putting raisins in every dish.
It’s always impossible to say what foods you will miss most when you move abroad. When I lived in Europe, I asked my mom to send me crab seasoning, a spice I never liked before and never used, but that little tin sat on my bookshelf proudly for a year.
Moving overseas always means culinary adjustments. One friend is vegetarian by choice, but when he tried to be vegetarian on the Arabian Peninsula, what he ate became the main topic of every meal. After many conversations centered around his food choices, he decided that when he was in the Middle East, he would eat vegetarian when he could (which meant, when he was alone) and ate sparingly of what was offered when he was eating with friends.
When I used to do cultural orientations for new teachers, I would tell them that everyone has unspoken/ unacknowledged expectations about foreign cultures in that they will think, “I know that X will be different but of course Y will be the same.” And when they see their “of course Y will be the same…” start to fall apart, it is painful. Especially when it comes to basics such as grocery stores (no pastrami, scone mix, turkey, toasted onions, salad-in-a-bag or soft pretzels); potato flakes are shelved next to pancake mix and every Cheeto is ‘flaming hot’ here.
You are faced with “Party fever” spray deodorant, hokey-pokey (ask someone from New Zealand), Jaggery (isn’t that a Dickens’s character?), angel delight (?), Tim-Tams (ask someone from Australia), “Chicago Sauce,” fish maw soup, and jungle oats with a recipe on the side for “fish cakes” which begins with “one tin of sardines in tomato sauce.”
The oil aisle is a pure delight. Of course you have your basics: almond oil, sunflower, coconut oil, pure ghee, Mazola, grape seed, and peanut oil, then the flights of fancy take off: olive oil from Spain and Italy, toasted sesame oil, gingelly oil, olive pomace oil, ground nut, walnut oil from France, basil, lemon, soy bean, avocado oil. The spice aisle has “Zeal” (aka MSG), “Spice for Mince,” “Zulu Fine,” “Spice for Rice,” “Spice for Mince,” “Veggie Season,” juniper berries, and my favorite: bits of raw sugar and cinnamon sticks in a grinder.
Many texts about the Middle East talk about guests being forced to over-eat or the horrors of being given camel eyes to eat. I have not seen that – my issues are with the jalapenos lurking under the cheese on pizzas, never being able to drink filter coffee (it’s always hot water added to an espresso), being invited for dinner at 8pm and having the food actually served at midnight, discovering that the dessert is sweetened shredded carrots, being invited over to chat and given a glass of tap-water and nothing else… Salads don’t have dressings, bread is not served with butter, drinks are brought out after the meal is finished – it’s different. Not better, not worse – just different.