How to Eat in a Foreign Country Without Going Crazy

I love kneading bread. There is nothing like the magic of pounding that sticky, lumpy mass of flour and water into a silky, smooth, obedient ball of dough. If only all of life’s sticky problems could be so quickly transformed into valuable assets. Luckily (for me), moving often, especially internationally, does expand (if sometimes painfully) one’s toolbox for solving problems. And nowhere is this more apparent than in our food choices. Different foods are just easier to find in some places than others. And if you don’t want to spend a fortune shopping at an international grocery store for foods imported from much too far away, it behooves you to learn to eat like the locals. Or at least make something you like out of the local ingredients.

In San Diego, we ate Mexican food at least once a week, whether it was bean burritos, fajitas, enchiladas, or taco salad. Actually, it was probably more like twice a week, and always liberally adorned with guacamole from avocados we bought in bags of 25 on the side of the road. I would also buy corn tortillas from the neighborhood Mexican market in bags of one hundred, and so fresh they were still warm.

In the Philippines we ate so much rice that even now, five years later, I can rarely bring myself to make it. I also learned how make lots of different egg-in-a-frying pan dishes, since we had no oven, and only a single little hot plate to cook on. My favorite was tortang talong, a sort of eggplant omelet. I also still miss being able to eat a whole pineapple all by myself whenever I wanted, and all those delectable coconuts. I’d do just fine stranded on a desert island.

In Ireland, I made soda bread daily, and we ate it with the delicious yellow butter that the cows so obligingly translate out of all that green grass. The Irish version of Mexican food is Indian food, so we often ate chicken curried in various different ways. Perhaps if we had lived there longer I would have really gotten into black and white pudding (I confess I never could bring myself to try it) and begun to cook with turnips more. Perhaps. Although I did learn to make Irish-style flapjacks, which are still often requested as Family Home Evening treat around here.

Here in Italy I just don’t feel like cooking in butter anymore. But I panic if I run out of olive oil, which ends up drizzled on just about everything. D.O.P Parmesan is another of those things that’s just a necessity in Italy. And I have a whole cupboard in my small kitchen entirely devoted to pasta, which we eat for lunch every day. My daily bread here is an Italian sourdough, which often ends up being cooked as pizza. Cannelli beans are cheap and easy to find too, so I have a list of white bean soup recipes that I make, from traditional Tuscan minestrone to white chili to BBQ baked beans. Those black beans we loved in San Diego are nowhere to be found, but we don’t miss them too much, since we have new things to eat.

Then there’s cheese. Ah, cheese. Tillamook was always on sale in Vancouver (touring the Tillamook Cheese Factory was one of our favorite outings), and at the time, it was the best we knew of cheese. Until we started sampling imported cheeses from Trader Joe’s, that is. We really wanted to like “stinky” cheese, but when I finally psyched myself up and bought some camembert, it stayed in the fridge for weeks, and every time I opened the door I could smell it. We did end up trying a tiny slice, but I’m sorry to say that the rest got thrown out. The funny thing is, after an adventurous seven months of cheese tasting in Italy, I bought that same camembert from Trader Joe’s. We gobbled it in one sitting, and it didn’t even seem stinky at all.

My all-time stinkiest cheese was one we picked up in Nice, France on our way back to Italy this last time. It was soft and white, and had a ripply, ridgy rind like a maze. But that rind was entirely covered in a thick grey mold. I was so sick I couldn’t eat much of anything (I’d been living on white grape juice finger jello for days), but somehow I liked that cheese. I ate a good six or seven ounces of it on the train.

In San Diego we ate fresh Mexican cheese on everything. And I could rhapsodize at length about Italian cheese, from toma with juniper berries to sweet gorgonzola (nothing like the hard crumbles) to the divine sheep’s milk ricotta in Genova.

Whenever we travel, and especially when we move, I like to go to the food market without any preconceived ideas about what types of recipes I’m going to make. Once I find out what our assets are, then I look for recipes that are authentic to the area, but also for recipes that incorporate local ingredients, even if they have nothing to do with the area. That means you might get eggplant parmesan if you visit us in Italy. But you might also get tortang talong, since it’s made with the same ingredients. Eclectic recipes are just some more of the intangible souvenirs we’ve picked up along the way.

5 thoughts on “How to Eat in a Foreign Country Without Going Crazy

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  • November 8, 2010 at 5:43 am

    I guess I'll have to put together a canellini download for my blog.

  • November 5, 2010 at 2:21 am

    Wow, you have traveled, will you share your recipes for the white beans? That is one available in India! Love your blog!

  • October 28, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    I would love to hear more about the food. Yumm! I am a BIG Foodie!

  • October 13, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Cheese….I love talking about it, reading about it, eating it. Natalie


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