One of the most challenging adjustments to overseas living is in the kitchen. Food can cause us to experience homesickness like nothing else! Foods are closely related to feelings of comfort, home, and culture. Dealing with food issues can be frustrating, especially if you have never been one to spend time in the kitchen. This is written from the American standpoint, but if you are from another culture, hopefully some of these tips will still be helpful to you.
Get some good natural food cookbooks. Some of these cookbooks not only have recipes, but also have tips that can help you learn more about nutrition and how to adapt the recipes for the situation where you live. They are less likely to call for packaged products that are unavailable, but use basic foods and spices.
From the American/Western angle, some I have found helpful are:
Whole Foods for the Whole Family by La Leche League
The Rodale Whole Foods Cookbook
Disclaimer: My copies are old editions, and I have not tried out the new ones to see if they retain the same helpfulness.
Copy substitution and measurement equivalent lists. Having information like the following in your kitchen makes conversions between American and other systems easy:
Measurements (some of these are approximate conversions, but have worked for me):
1 tsp.= 5 milliliters
1 T= 15 milliliters
1 cup=240 milliliters
1 qt.=approx. 1 liter
1 cup=250 grams
½ cup=125 grams (1 stick of butter is about 125 grams)
180 C = 350 F [conversion formula: (C temp. x 1.8) + 32 = F temp.]
*All ingredients are not created equally in different countries. For example: butter may seem greasier, salt may be saltier, baking powder may or may not need to be doubled, flours may be more absorbent. Some of these things must just be discovered through experimenting.
*In American recipes, 4 eggs should equal 1 cup, so if the eggs are small where you are, this is a guideline to follow rather than number of eggs.
*In many countries, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is bought in the drug store or chemist’s shop, and is not available at the grocer’s.
*To make sure eggs are good, cover them with water. If they float, throw them away.
*Fats—oil, shortening, and butter may be used interchangeably in baking, but it will affect the texture of the product somewhat. Oil makes brownies chewier, butter makes them more cake-like. In cookies that call for shortening, when you use butter overseas, you may need to add 1/3 to ½ cup more flour to make them firmer and less runny.
*If whole wheat flour is finely ground, it can be substituted equally for white flour, but you may need to add a little more water or milk to the recipe to keep it from being too dry. It will change the texture and taste some, so you have to learn which recipes you like with more or less whole wheat.
*1 cup self-rising flour = 1 cup regular flour plus 1 tsp. baking powder and ½ tsp. salt.
*For “Pet” milk, or evaporated milk in a recipe, use powdered milk, but double the amount of milk powder you would use for regular milk.
*1 square chocolate (1 oz. or 30 gms.)= 3 T cocoa + 1 T butter or margarine
*1 cup corn syrup=1 cup sugar+1/4 cup liquid (water) (For dark corn syrup or molasses, use brown sugar) With both, add more sugar after the water is added to make it equal 1 cup again)
*1 cup buttermilk or sour milk= 1 cup milk+1 T lemon juice or vinegar
*Pancake syrup: 2 cups sugar, 1 cup water; heat until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and add ½ tsp. maple or other flavoring.
*Chop up about a 200 gm. chocolate bar for the 12-oz. bag of chocolate chips for cookies.
Keep on-going lists. Keep a list in your planner or Smartphone of spices and food items that you cannot find locally, so that when you have the opportunity, you will know immediately what you need. I found it much easier to learn how to make things like vegetable dip and taco seasoning by using spices rather than trying to keep mixes on hand; it’s healthier too! (The cookbooks mentioned above are helpful with this.)
Experiment with local products. Trying local foods will supply you with new favorites that you will look back on with fondness in the future. It will also make living in your new home less complicated. Sometimes you can substitute items that may not be quite what you are wanting, but will be “good enough.” For instance, in India, I could not find cornmeal for making cornbread. But I could substitute sooji in my recipe, and though it wasn’t quite the same, it was still good.
The more quickly you can adjust to locally available foods, the easier it will be. However, there will probably always be at least a few things that you will want to bring in when you can!
Guest author: Joan Perkins lives in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, with her husband, Bill, and two youngest sons. She spent 25 years living overseas, in Costa Rica, Argentina, Bangladesh, India, and Thailand. Joan graduated with a M.Div. degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and enjoys teaching women. She and Bill have six children, and one grandchild.