Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755 – 1826)
Never 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?
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.” Follow @iwasanexpatwife
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.
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!
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?