A highlight of living abroad is the exposure to varied cuisines: brand new dishes, unique ways to use ingredients I’m familiar with, and local variations on “American” food (see: camel burgers).
But sometimes, I crave the flavors, textures, and emotional connection to dishes from back home. The only way to prepare for those cravings, of course, is to think through them ahead of time and bring the hard-to-find ingredients with you. For years during home leave or while visiting more cosmopolitan locales, this process brought me massive stress; I’d begin at the grocery store with limited luggage space, budget, and time, and end in a tearful slump in Aisle 9, muttering to myself about the philosophical difference between a need and a want when it comes to food. It got ugly.
To wit, below is a list of suggestions of the most comforting food items I typically pick up, consider, re-hash, streamline, debate, remove from the shopping cart, and maybe put back in the shopping cart. Maybe. Probably.
Many of these suggestions were learned from my good friend and Expat Expert Natasha, who has mastered the Art of Life Overseas (in the UK, Rwanda, Kenya, Mali, Jordan, and Sudan, with travel to a zillion other locales); she has nailed life. Of course, these will be worthwhile or not depending on where you reside; likely you don’t crave instant Ramen noodles in Toyko, or Tex-Mex seasoning in Guadalajara. Use this as a starting point, and swap in what works for you.
Covfefe Coffee: If you have a regular itch for your favorite roast, bring it with you. On that note, bring a French press or other coffee-making contraption, as needed. We have a French press at home, and I’d definitely suggest more durable stainless steel versions, because we’re on our third or fourth glass press by now. Also on that note, any special tea blends for when you need a cuppa’.
Cheeses: In many places, cheese is either totally unavailable, limited to a few local options, or is only found as processed, frozen, and shredded “pizza cheese.” Quality cheese is the epitome of luxury when it’s not available where you live; mine is running out, and I’m starting to panic. Depending on how far you’re traveling, you can get away with soft versus hard varieties. If you’ve got carry-on space, keep the cheese with you for temperature control, and as a security measure to protect this Most Precious Good. Also: Don’t forget the cream cheese !!
Tex-Mex seasonings: I put this on all of the things, not just tacos, etc., including vegetables, meats, fish, even scrambled eggs.
Mac & Cheese: Only the cheese packets (unless you live somewhere without pasta, in which case, my condolences).
Hot sauce: I go for Cholula or Sriracha, or the standard Tobasco.
Semi-sweet chocolate chips: Alternately, specialty or dark chocolate. Note that Hershey’s chocolate is unavailable (and wrongly disparaged!) in many locations where imports are supplied by Europe and the MidEast. This is potentially disastrous, like when you bite into a newly-discovered KitKat bar with expectant zeal, only to realize it’s the Nestle version…chalky and far inferior!
Natural peanut butter (no added sugar or preservatives), if you’re into that kind of thing. PB will hold down your J, perhaps made from local fruit, and get you back to your 4th grade roots on days when you’ve overexerted your adult self. It’s also a solid source of protein when you’ve had your fill of/don’t partake in
goat, camel the local varieties of meat. For those headed to Kenya and elsewhere in East Africa, note that Bintis peanut butter is some of the best on the planet; I regularly request Bintis hauls from colleagues coming to Hargeisa from Nairobi so I can get my fix. Bintis Instagram has drool-worthy recipe ideas and photos, as well.
Herb mixes: I find that adding dried herbs (sage, rosemary, oregano, Herbes de Provence, etc.) to pasta or breakfast dishes really takes you places. In the morning, we regularly eat a dish I’ve come to affectionately call “the Ashley” after the dear friend who created it in Los Angeles: diced veggies (whatever’s locally available), tossed with olive oil, salt, and a few tablespoons of Herbes de Provence. Roast for 20-25 minutes, and top with a fried egg and a side of toast. It’s good without the herbs; it’s fantastic with.
Cumin: Magician of the spice world!
Muffin, scone, or quick bread mixes: Normally I make these from scratch, because the basic ingredients are easy enough to procure. But often, the mix-ins or flavors aren’t (e.g. blueberry, cranberry, pear, etc.), so these are nice to have around, and quick to assemble.
Instant Ramen: Especially the versions with buckwheat/soba or black rice noodles.
BBQ sauce: Sweet Baby Ray’s; it’s the American way. Pulled chicken, sloppy Joes, skewer dip, ketchup sub, you name it.
Rolled oats: Hearty oatmeal, proper oatmeal cookies, granola, etc.
Flax, chia, sesame, poppy, bird, or other seeds that make you feel virtuous… and keep you regular.
Cheez-its, Goldfish, or other cheesy crackers: I kid you not–after a rough day at work, an emotional Skype call, or in the midst of a fit of homesickness, these really hit the spot.
And if you’ve got the extra space…
Chipotle peppers in Adobo sauce
Cocoa powder: For when you’ve run out of chocolate but still require brownies for psychological perseverance. Also, in your coffee?
Marshmallows: for proper or ersatz s’mores, and to astonish and delight
adult small children.
Olives: If you’re a fiend and you’ve got the luggage space.
Beloved holiday foods: If Halloween or Thanksgiving or July 4th or Christmas or Hanukkah or Eid just isn’t the same without that one food, bring it with you, or bring the herbs, spices, and mix-ins that feel right. It’ll be worth it when you need a taste of home.
There’s more–there’s always more–you could carry with you (see: The Aisle 9 Breakdown). My advice is to make a list of workhorse essentials (spices and such that will last), and then a list of luxuries (what you normally crave after a rough day, or when you’re under the weather, etc.), and strike a balance between them.
Related: Here’s a funny Buzzfeed piece on which foods Americans in Europe miss from home.
What would you/do you make sure to bring with you when you travel, or when you move/d abroad? What are your staples, what do you crave?