A taste of home: Satisfying expat food cravings

Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755 – 1826)
M&MsNever mind, Monsieur Brillat-Savarin, I’ll tell you what I am myself and save you the trouble: My name is Maria, and I am a picky eater.

I’ve always been this way. Chef Boyardee (my food-loving husband) was worried I wouldn’t be able to handle living in Singapore because of my affliction. I told him I’d gladly eat burnt toast three times a day if it would get me away from Canadian winters for a while.

Turns out our food concerns were unfounded. Singapore is a foodie’s paradise, and there was plenty to suit even my unadventurous palate. It’s true that I shied away from some local favourites, such as chilli crab and congee. And yes, I sampled plenty of others, such as durian and chicken rice, with not-so-good results. But I surprised us all by developing a taste for many dishes I’d never even heard of before, like mee goreng, tarka dal, and satay. I wasn’t a total write-off in the food department after all.

The one food I missed from my former life was m&m’s. The Singaporean variety were made in Malaysia and honestly, they tasted like cardboard. I’m guessing the original formula was probably tinkered with to raise the melting point of the chocolate — necessary in that climate, I suppose, but a real downer for my taste buds.

I’m not alone in yearning for a taste of home. Ask any expat what they miss most, and food is almost certain to top the list. For example, Nikki, an Australian now living in South Africa, was crushed when she couldn’t find Vegemite in Durban. Moon Hee, a Korean living in Canada, misses street food such as dak-kochi (chicken kabobs with Korean hot sauce) and namool (a seasoned vegetable dish).

Why do we crave food from home?

The amygdala is the brain’s emotional headquarters.

We can start by blaming biology. Our senses of taste and smell work together to create an impression of flavour in our foods. When we eat, the food in our mouths gives off odour molecules that travel through our nasal passages and into our brains.

When it comes to sensory processing, smell is the only one of our senses that is processed in the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure that serves as the brain’s emotional HQ. It’s located close to the memory centre, which is why scents (and by extension, tastes) are eerily effective at triggering memories. Especially emotional ones.

Add to this the strong psychological pull of Home. The concept has powerful emotional associations: home is where we feel nurtured and safe. Foods that we ate in our childhood are familiar and reassuring; they remind us of a time when we belonged. As expats, belonging is sometimes in short supply, and we subconsciously turn to those special foods to recreate that sense of security and well-being.

Anne-Claire Bocage’s frustrating search for ranch dressing led her to build a business around this very idea. As the owner of the online food store My American Market, she sympathizes with her homesick clients. “When you are living abroad for a while, it is very common to miss the taste of home. Food can have a comforting effect when homesick or when you’re feeling just a bit down.”

Anne-Claire points out that food also connects expats — and their children — to their cultural roots. “It is important to sustain traditions like cooking traditional dishes for holidays or the big events in one’s life,” she says. “It is also very valuable to them in being able to share this part of their culture with their kids, especially if they are bicultural or raised abroad.”   

So what’s a food-craving expat to do?

If there’s a tasty treat from home you just can’t live without, you have several options:

Stuff your suitcases

Gillian, an American who has lived in Niger and Zimbabwe and now lives in Rome, admits she’s “paid a mortgage payment worth of excess baggage fees” to transport favourite foods to her various expat homes over the years. An alternative is to throw yourself on the mercy of family and friends — they might take pity on you and send care packages to ease your misery.

Get inventive

With a little effort and some basic DIY skills, you might be able to re-create what you’re pining for. Gillian grows cilantro and tomatillos on her small balcony in Rome for the Mexican food she misses so much. When she lived in Niger, her yearning for bagels led her to learn how to make them from scratch.

Start a movement

Last summer, Britons living in Austria gave a sigh of relief that could be heard around the world. After a prolonged campaign against the locally-produced version of Heinz baked beans, the manufacturer caved to public pressure and switched to the familiar UK formula. “We always listen to consumers, and our much loved UK recipe for Heinz Beans is now being used,” said a spokesperson for Heinz. Power to the people!

Buy online

If you’re truly desperate, you can have your favourite delicacies shipped to your front door. Online food stores targeting specific expat groups have sprung up all over the internet, and their client base is growing.

“Our American clients are thrilled to learn about us,” agrees Anne-Claire. “They’ve usually been struggling for a while to get their favorite goodies, and are very grateful. They make us feel like we are Santa Claus delivering presents every day!”

Find a local alternative

Globalization hasn’t yet managed to homogenize taste, although it has made it much easier to find our favourite foods — or at least, a version of them — in places we’d never expect. Nikki loves a popular Australian snack food called Twisties, but has had no luck finding them in South Africa. “They have these things they call Nik Naks,” she says sadly, “but they’re just not Twisties.”

Moon Hee finds that although some Korean snack foods are available in Canada, their inferior taste convinced her family to try eating like the locals instead. “Korean snacks are not sweet and salty like here, so the first time we had Canadian snacks, we couldn’t finish them. But,” she adds, “we are getting used to the taste.”

Gillian has decided it’s probably better to just accept the loss and move on. “Over time (and living in the bounty that is Rome) I have found I miss things less, and really focus on what is available where I am,” she says. “Having said that, on a recent trip to London the very first thing I did was go straight to Krispy Kreme, then to Starbucks. Then to a South African grocery store to stock up on biltong and rooibos tea and zoo biscuits.”

Some cravings are obviously just too big to fight!

What foods from home do you miss, and how do you handle your cravings?

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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18 Responses to A taste of home: Satisfying expat food cravings

  1. msleetobe says:

    Maybe congee is really different in Korea, but I LOVE it (‘juk’ in Korean). We have a take out place close to our house, and they know me very well there!

    My list: Tim Hortons. Ugh. My husband and I have often said that if we had the money to open a business, we would open a Timmy’s in the same building as the Taco Bell in the foreign area of Seoul. I don’t understand how Khandahar has one but not Seoul.
    -Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
    -Sidekicks & Velveta Mac & Cheese
    -Veggie ‘ground beef’
    -Triscuits
    -Cottage cheese
    -my grandma’s homemade dill and seven day pickles
    -vegetarian microwave dinners

    Most of these things can be purchased on Base, but my army contacts are from church and have some moral qualms about being my personal buyer at the PX. You can also buy some of them at a tiny black market place, but the prices are obscene, and it means a special trip to an out of the way (for me) place. It would just be SO NICE to go to my local grocery store and buy reasonably priced cottage cheese on a regular basis!!!

    The upside, is that when you DO find something, it’s like a miracle. Like, one time I was at COSTCO and they had Bisquick for the first time ever. I literally stopped dead in my tracks and then proceeded to block carts as I stood in the middle of the aisle and hugged the box. My husband thought I was insane, but then his parents had a celebration in Zhers when they found ‘our country’s ramyeon’ in small town Ontario.

    • Maria says:

      Hugging food in Costco — now there’s a mental image! 😉 But one I can understand. In Singapore, my daughters’ Canadian school raffled off a package of Twizzlers at a fundraiser one year. There was no hugging that I know of, but apparently the lucky winner did a victory dance. (BTW, I’m on my way to Tim’s right now. I don’t drink much coffee, but Elder Daughter sometimes likes to pop in for a bowl of oatmeal on her way to school during the winter.)

  2. Great post.

    I live in the non-exotic States, in NY, but there are many Canadian foods I can’t find and miss — from Shreddies cereal to peameal bacon sandwiches to Big Turk and Crunchie candy bars to butter tarts…So I come back to NY every time with fistfuls of Canadian candy I hoard jealously til my next visit. Luckily, I am back north every 2-3 months, (currently in Vancouver) and planning a serious raid on the airport candy rack tomorrow when I head back to the U.S.

    As much as I miss the foods, I miss people who also know and love them. One of the challenges of expat life is not having friends who know WHY you miss something so much because they also know and love it. Have you ever even tried to explain sponge toffee to an American? I gave up years ago!

    • Maria says:

      I’m not sure I can even explain sponge toffee to myself! So glad you mentioned it, though — it brought back all kinds of sticky and wonderful childhood memories. Wikipedia has an entire page devoted to it, and here I learned that it’s called different things all over the world: honeycomb toffee, yellowman, puff candy, and hokey pokey, for example. (I realize this sounds like the inventory of a drug bust at a rave, but they’re all actually names for that lovely candy beloved by dentists everywhere.)

    • What I find iteresting is that there is such a big difference in available candies in Canada and the US. The US always sees a way of introducing more things to fill the grocery shelves with so why are these Canadian goodies not there, I wonder.

  3. As a Dutchie, I miss good aged Gouda cheese, and it will always find its way into my suitcases. In the countries I’ve lived most recently — Palestine, Ghana, Armenia — it was not available. In the US imitations come from Wisconsin sometimes, or the imported varieties are the “mild” sort. It was only recently I was at a Wegmans in Virginia where they had — be still my heart — the “aged’ Gouda cheese, imported straight from the Netherlands. I had the same brand in my suitcase only a week before, and at about 1/3 of the price 😉 So I will still be buying it in Holland.

    Sweet things I used to bring from Holland included stroopwafels (syrup waffles) but I’ve sort of given up bringing them because of the calories and the fact that I’ve weaned myself of wanting a lot of sweets.

  4. Mac & cheese, Mexican food, and yummy onion rings 🙂

  5. Celia says:

    Mmmm, from South Africa I miss Ouma’s sliced rusks and Mrs Balls’ chutney. From Singapore I miss black pepper crab at the East Coast Seafood Center and Sammy’s Indian Restaurant.

  6. naomi says:

    What do I miss? Definitely Mexican … and chocolate that hasn’t been melted, rehardened, melted, rehardened and melted again. That and beef …

    Our suitcase “must have list” for when we visit the United States is getting shorter and shorter the longer we’re here in India … and I have a feeling that over the NEXT two years, it will become non-existent. We mostly substitute and find NEW things to enjoy … and quite honestly, we just don’t crave that much anymore!

  7. This was a fascinating post. I’m all about food, where it comes from, how we make it, what we like, so I really enjoyed your post. I’m an American living in America, but I’ve still ordered hard to find ingredients online because they aren’t available where I live. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to get all of my pantry staples that way. Thank you for writing about this.

  8. Michi says:

    Oh God!!! I am going through this phase now! (Silly to call it a phase, because it’s never-ending). Luckily my dad’s coming to visit in a couple of months – I’ve already let him know to make way in his suitcase for all of the things I’m going to need from “home.” 🙂

  9. Vicki says:

    Stumbled across your blog via a link to the Ugly Expat 12 Step Program. Have been skipping around your posts for almost an hour now! I’m a Canadian expat and 13 years and 4 countries after leaving Canada I still jump for joy when I find Clamato, Triscuits, Peanut Butter Cups and Graham Wafers. I have a similar list for every country in which I have lived. (I did a happy dance when I found real Norveiga cheese in a Canadian grocery store one summer.) The taste of home will always and forever be Timmy’s coffee though – as bad as it is – to me, it is Canada. Wonderful blog, looking forward to reading more.

    • Maria says:

      What a great comment to start my day! Thanks for the early-morning smile.

      The Timmy’s phenomenon will always be a mystery to me. What is it about this coffee & doughnut chain that makes Canadians wild? Half of the people who love it admit the coffee’s not very good, yet it’s a cultural icon. (Roll Up The Rim time is hailed as though it were the Second Coming.) Even though it’s a deeply-engrained part of Canadian culture — the closest thing we have to a national cuisine, I suppose — I never once thought about it when I lived abroad. Triscuits and graham wafers — now that’s another story!

  10. Pearl Maple says:

    too funny, for me it is always the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, so hard to find but oh so melt in the mouth good

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