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Expats and ex-expats, what are your experiences cooking overseas?

Seven months ago, we packed up the family, sold the house in Baltimore and moved to Dubai for a work stint that will last at least three years. Before coming out here I had anticipated the challenges of cooking in an overseas country, and particularly in the Middle East. I lived in London years ago, but Dubai is a very different place.

Now that we've been here for seven months and counting, I can now look back and see how my cooking habits have changed.

First of all, I don't cook anywhere as much as I used to. We have a wonderful Sri Lankan maid who was well trained by her previous employers, a British family, and is adept at turning out simple roasts and soups and pasta dishes. Most nights we sit down to a meal prepared by her.

Second, dining out is inexpensive in Dubai when compared to the United States. Restaurants here fall into two categories: those in "New Dubai" that cater to Westerners and affluent Emiratis, and those that cater to everybody else. A meal at a New Dubai restaurant will be about 60-80% of a similar place in the United States, while the leagues of wonderful Indian and Pakistani restaurants can feed a family of four for $20 to $40. So we dine out more often than we did in the United States.

Third, while the supermarkets are as well stocked as those in the US, and my local supermarket, Spinneys, is modern, clean, attractive and stocks the traditional range of British goods, especially from Waitrose (an upmarket British supermarket), baking is a bit of a challenge. The flour from the UK is different from the standard flour or cake flour in the US, and the few times I've made pound cake or pie crust, the results have been different, if still good.

Pork is available in this muslim country, but not at restaurants. You buy pork in a special room in the supermarkets, and the room will have a large sign above the entryway that proclaims: "Pork Room. Muslims Forbidden."

Fourth, the quality of the produce section is decent but not spectacular. I sorely missed the tomatoes and apples from the farmers' markets this year! Nothing available out here compares to a ripe organic tomato or the crisp apples I made into endless pies last year.

However, the pleasant discoveries include the vast array of fresh fruit and the availability of fruit drinks of all types everywhere we go. The population of Dubai is very diverse, with the clear majority hailing from Pakistan and the Indian sub-continent, so the range of produce is extensive. I've discovered beef from Uruguay and pork from Kenya.

So, what about other expat Chowhounders? What have your experiences been like?

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  1. I've mainly lived in major cities, so finding a variety of incredible produce hasn't really been a problem in Paris, Tokyo, Rome, or Madrid (I'm originally from Chicago, and have also lived in NYC & SF). While living in Germany, I had to take the train or tram to Mannheim to pick up mushroom soy at a Turkish market because Heidelberg and Ziegelhausen didn't carry a broader range of ethnic foods at the time ('94).

    Baking soda, however, has continued to be difficult for me to find outside of the US.

    Most of my culinary issues stemmed from learning how to cook in the smallest kitchen in the world (a stool would be too wide), learning how to politely ask whether there was something I was allergic to in a dish, or whether I could afford what I really wanted versus what was inexpensively available.

    The number of different types of creams and other dairy in Germany is breathtaking, although I would avoid hunter's flavour (jager) gelatin. Baguettes--even in the train station--are amazing in Paris (the one place where you will eat more than you ever had in your life and still lose weight). I stopped being a vegetarian in Spain. Fruit can be absolutely perfect in Japan, but at a high cost and you're not actually supposed to eat those beauties.

    I've never adhered to a set way of eating, so modifying what was on hand to my varying taste hasn't been difficult. In Paris I would take the inexpensive bags of frozen fruits de mer and cook it with rice and garlic for breakfast--much to my roommate's chagrin--alternating it with a nougat bar or a toasted almond merengue. In Germany, breakfast was oatmeal with chopped apples and sliced bananas or popcorn made in a frying pan. In Madrid, eggs, sometimes with chorizo.

    In essence, I made do with what was readily available. I've actually found it harder adjusting to different cities in the US, as I expect all of the local stores to have identical selections of the same quality.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Caralien

      What are you supposed to do with the fruit?

      1. re: TampaAurora

        Put it on a shelf so others can oogle it (knowing how expensive it was).

        1. re: Caralien

          Or give it as a gift. That's what I think they're mainly for!

    2. Thanks to the Fulbright program, we lived in a "western-style" apartment in Taipei from Nov 1980 to May 1982. The fridge was in the living room - at that point fridges were still a bit of a status symbol - and the kitchen was about 9' long and 4' across. It featured a stainless steel work counter with cold-water sink and a hot plate with 2 burners which were either ON (in a big way, suitable for wok cooking) or off. We bought a small electric oven that lasted maybe 3 months before giving up the ghost, and a smallish electric frypan so I could cook things at more moderate temperatures. With the help of the Wei Chuan and Fu Pei-mei cookbooks, I taught myself to cook passable Chinese food. When we arrived, I had been cooking for us for 7 years and was really more of a baker than a cook. When we left, I was a far better and more flexible cook. Living in Taipei was the best experience of my life so far - the exposure to Chinese food of the highest quality, to the wonderful people, to the markets with their divine fruits and vegetables, to the language and culture in general...I would go back in a heartbeat.

      1. I'm not an expat, but this reminds me of a conversation with my husband about a Thanksgiving spent many years ago in Mazatlan, Mexico. We were staying in a condo, and our children were young...so young we had talked my younger sister (she was still single; I think still in college) to come along as a babysitter. She and I decided we had to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Now, I've had turkey before in Mexico, but for some reason we couldn't find it. We searched the markets all day that Wednesday with no luck. My memory was that we finally found turkey parts (legs etc) somewhere and cooked that; but husband says no, we roasted a large chicken. Of course, his memory could be faulty too: I distinctly remember inviting two American musicians who were living in the condo next to ours, and that they "sang for their supper." DH has no such memory. We both remember an apple pie made from scratch that was pretty good. And no cranberry sauce :-)

        1. Another Dubai expat here - via Canada (me) and Scotland (my husband).

          I've noticed some of the same things as you - we eat out more frequently, though we find the prices to be about the same as in Canada, if not more at times. Any restaurant that serves alcohol here will also likely serve pork - the two "haram" items seem to go hand in hand.

          We've expolored quite a few different "western" grocery stores (incidentally, Spinney's is an Indian company, as is - more obviously - Choitram's), which are all more or less the same. Personally, given the HUGE carbon footprint that Dubai living entails, I tend to shudder at buying European fruit and veg, and mostly avoid it (which is easy when the mangos are ripe).

          We've also done some more exploration of the local markets; yesterday we hit the fish market down at the port. It was wonderful - I finally got to ask the vendors what some of the vegetables were, got some wonderful fruit and local fish, and made most of them laugh at the pathetic amount of ginger and chilis that I bought. Prices were quite a bit cheaper than the supermarket (and that's even with no haggling done!).

          Aside from eating a lot of the fresh and beautiful seafood, we've also had explorations in meat... I find myself making more stocks, since meat bones and offcuts are more readily available / displayed than in Canada, and when you buy a fish they will clean it to your preference and provide you with the head and bony bits for stock.

          All in all, it's been a wonderful opportunity. I've been toying with the idea of a food blog detailing my culinary adventures in Dubai, especially since there's such a melting pot. I'm thinking of cooking my way through a "local" cookbook, then moving on to some nieghbouring cuisines. We shall see what happens!

          1. My first kichen was in a tiny apartment in Bologna when I was in grad school. I quickly discovered that Mom's staple recipes often required some level of adaptation and things like hot peppers and curry were pretty hard to find. I brought a bunch of condiments back to Italy after coming home for Christmas, but mostly I adapted and learned to do things Italian-style. This meant I got to experiment with things like porcinis and pormegranates. Of course, I had the added challenge of going from my parents' kitchen (all Calphalon, every appliance in the Willliams-Sonoma catalog) to two knives, two pots, one frying pan, a stove and an oven. Not even a mircowave! And then the language thing - I once bought what I thought was a pork tenderloin that turned out to be a rolled-up turkey breast. Mistakes were made, but with a little ingenuity and a sense of humor things usually turned out at least edible.