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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.

            1. Living in another part of the Middle East in Jerusalem, I guess I'm fairly blessed with amazing incredibly inexpensive produce and spices. As long as you buy stuff that's grown locally. However items like tomatoes, cucumbers, fennel, citrus, bell peppers, parsley, cilantro, etc are exceedingly cheap if you buy them in the open air markets. The fresh bread is also amazing and really cheap. The second you step into a grocery store, the prices on produce soars and the quality sinks. So it turns shopping into a multi-site adventure.

              I had gotten used to that aspect of cooking (shopping in multiple places) when living in Dublin, but one thing I hate adjusting to is kitchen size. Both in Dublin and Jerusalem I've been a student, so it's also been the task of having to restock a kitchen that's the size of a broom closet. I also now only have a stove top (no oven) - so that changes what's done. This year for Thanksgiving one of my friends made the most amazing turkey legs stove top - I'm still impressed at how well those turned out.

              1. Expats tend to fall into roughly two categories. One is the type that has a maid, lives on an expense account, and can afford to eat out. The other is the type that lives like an average citizen or a normal person and can't afford to have someone else provide for them. In Tokyo, you find both sorts. I'm the latter.

                I cook 99% of my food myself. I find foreign-made ingredients and foods when there is no indigenous equivalent through special importers or shops that carry imports. For instance, baking soda can be bought at Costco Japan as can some more esoteric baking ingredients. It's pretty rare, however, that I can't get by with what is in Japanese markets. Mainly, it's difficult to make some ethnic dishes like Indian or Mexican cuisine, because the spices aren't common in Japanese cuisine and most Japanese people don't prepare their own Indian dishes (they make "curry rice", but it's a completely Japanese concoction) or have limited experience with Mexican food.

                The shopping in Tokyo is pretty bad actually when it comes to fresh produce. The options are relatively limited and most things are very expensive. You have to pay about a dollar for an apple and 3 stalks of celery costs about $2. Also, a lot of fresh produce isn't very fresh. The markets spray greens with chemicals to "liven it up" and then it gets fobbed off to discount shops. Fresh fish, of course, is easy to find, but I'd rather be able to buy produce than fish.

                1. In Tarija, Bolivia, for 3 ½ years in the 70s, there were no grocery stores, only a traditional open market. Traditional breads and goat cheeses were great, as were the wines. There were no Asian ingredients, not even in La Paz (which was virtually inaccessible anyway). Meat, potatoes, rice, beans, and a moderate amount of fruit and vegetables were available. But one dreamed of the food one was missing. We cooked almost all the time, but missed the ingredients needed to make different cuisines. Kitchen equipment was crap.

                  Based in the Philippines and working all over Asia and Africa for 14 years was great. Had to shop in the local open market for fruit, vegetables, rice, and, best of all, fresh fish from the seas; and in Makati, Metro Manila, for other stuff. Restaurants in Metro Manila were good; I had a Japanese and a German favorite. We ate all over in the remote, rural areas. Best of all was getting and broiling tuna cheeks upon arrival in General Santos in southern Mindanao (then going out for chicken feet, balut, and beer). Because I traveled for long periods for work in quite a number of countries, I learned lots of new dishes, a couple more languages, and always brought back lots of ingredients. Kitchen was crap.

                  Fifteen – sixteen years in Cali, Colombia (with work all over Latin America and Asia), I made sure to build a great and well equipped kitchen. Fruit and vegetables at the supermarket are great. Meat is good but expensive. I very rarely eat out when here. Cook all the time. I still travel a lot, leave with a mostly empty suitcase, and come back with it full of ingredients (Mexican, Japanese, general Asian, Lao, Indian, African) and stuff for my five year old daughter. International ingredients are slowly making an appearance at the markets, although very pricey.

                  Recently, I’m actually an “expat” when I stay in a suite in Washington, DC, shop at SafeWay, and eat like an American for 10 days a month.

                  1. In Bhutan, I have two gas burners and water I am not sure I should wash a salad with -no problems so far, but still I don't drink my tap water unpurified. There is a big farmers market in town on Sundays, or a smaller market about 2 km from my house where farmers show up whenever they have something to sell. Paro town is about 8 square blocks and there are 3 stores that carry produce so if it is not Sunday I check out who has the best of what. Another three stores are my favorites for dry goods, with varying levels of imported items, sme from India and some from Thailand. A couple of those are new or expanded in the 17 months I've been here, which is good. I cook dinner many nights, but it can be hard to get inspired by what is available locally, and I turn to ramen or popcorn entirely too often. I'm excited if I can find good green peas or broccoli, otherwise the veg selection is pretty much limited to potatoes, chilies, onions, radishes, roma tomatoes, pumpkin, and some mustard-type greens. Local restaurants are very inexpensive, I often go out for lunch on my day off and spend around three or four dollars. A few of the great things here are mandarin oranges, now in season, super cheap chanterelles and other wild mushrooms in the summer, and a local dried beef and chili snack that I am addicted to.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: babette feasts

                      I seem to remember hearing, but I'm not sure about this, that if you wouldn't drink the water, you shouldn't wash anything you're going to eat raw with it. Might be wrong on that.

                      I love this thread, though I have little to contribute. :)

                    2. Canadian in China - had to learn to cook all over again when I moved to China, and still go through a period of 'cooking jet lag' when I make the trip between countries. Have to get used to a new cooking equipment and a new batch of staples and seasonings and learn what vegetables are in season when all over again. Not to mention the language barrier...it's been very fun and eye opening though.

                      1. I'm an American living in South Africa, where we have a wealth of cheap, delicious, high-quality beef, pork, lamb, produce and wine. It's easy to shop and cook a wide variety of dishes here. South Africans do not seem to be into cheese, which makes me very sad, but someone just gave me a hot tip about a cheese shop not too far away, so I plan to check it out. I haven't had much baking success, which could be because of the altitude combined with my marginal baking skills. It's funny what isn't in the stores here... South Africans LOVE squash of all sorts (they have fresh butternut and pumpkin peeled and cubed in the produce sections of the markets) , but they are horrified at the idea of pumpkin pie. There's no canned pumpkin here. They also don't have canned chicken broth, and they seem to think the idea of it is perverse and weird.

                        Before SA I was in Haiti, where food is scarcer and lots of things are expensive and imported. The best bet there, as anywhere, was to go fresh and local. I loved the pork, the goat, the plantains, the avocados, and the pineapple. When the products that I wanted to use for a given recipe weren't available, I tended to make several substitutions, and the recipes frequently did not work out. I've given that up - if I can't find most of what is supposed to go into a recipe, I find something else to make.

                        I do love markets and grocery stores around the world. It's fun to see what people enjoy eating...

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: murray6789

                          I was in Ireland about 4 years ago, and a girl there desperately wanted to make pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving but couldn't find canned pumpkin. So she called the US embassy that said they had canned pumpkin to give away to those who wanted to make pumpkin pie during Thanksgiving. Not sure if this is something in all US embassies or even if the one in Ireland still does it - but I've always found that story amusing.

                        2. I lived in Russia some time ago (2000ish) and it was there that I really learned how to cook. I hadn't realised just how much I relied on prepackaged, semi-prepared things like pasta sauces, baking mixes, etc.. and at that time there wasn't that sort of thing there. So I had no choice but to learn how to use actual real ingredients. I definitely adjusted my perception of what was and was not a pain in the butt to cook. I found I had access to better produce, and when I would go to the places rich people would shop the quality went down. I've never found the need for convenience food since, and I've been back for many years. It's not just the quality thing, but now the idea that they are 'convenient' just doesn't hold anymore.

                          I never really picked up any Russian cooking, though I learned to experiment with things. ALOT.

                          My biggest regret was that in the autumn there are usually elderly people selling wild mushrooms on the streetcorner. I was being way too stick up my butt to trust them to have picked the non-poisonous ones. I'd buy them up by the bushelful now!

                          1. Viet Nam War, never mind.
                            I studied in The USSR for a year (69-70) after Nam. The bad military chow in Nam (much too much c-rats) made living in a Soviet University dorm a lot easier. Lots of greasy soups stews , sausages, potatoes onions, beets and cabbage ( a little vodka too).
                            In the five years spent in Norway, I lived on a small island and using my gill net (a 16' dory came with the house.) I feasted on fresh fish, skate, mussels and crabs. I could buy cheap whole lambs and in the autumn reindeer meat was very inexpensive. We picked a lot of berries and froze them ofr turned them into "saft" a juice concentrate for the winter. Shrimp was cheap. Again, lots of potatoes cabbage, onions and carrots. Alcohol was very expensive so I learned beer and wine making.
                            Moved from Stavanger to Helsinki, Finland for another five. We lived in a town house on a cul de sac ending in the forest. We were lucky enough to rent a very small cottage (mykki) 35 mi. west of the city. Continued to make beer and wine (but got hard liquor from the embassy for entertaining) Ate a lot of fish, stromming, salmon and caviars. Picked lots of wild mushrooms and dried them in our sauna. Did a lot of rod & reel and ice fishing, duck hunting and moose hunting once. Learned to scuba dive and if the pikeperch weren't biting, put on wet suits and speared flounder on a sand bar in the Baltic. Learned to enjoy a rappu fest (crayfish) and the great berries of summer.
                            Returned to Maine for a few years and then went to work in Santa Cruz Bolivia for 4 years. Learned to joy of churasco. Ate a lot of beef and pork and river fish. And thoroughly enjoyed all the tropical fruits and the wide vriety of potatoes. Developed an addiction to saltenas and Sunday afternoon chicharone. Crispy duck and pollo a la broasted were favorites too. The beer was good and the rum cheap.
                            Moved to Brasilia for a year and ate a lot of feijoida, picco mixto, baccalao and mango shrimp. But Brasilia was one strange place. A national capital, carved out of the Amazon jungle.
                            Returned to the coast of Maine and raised and put 5 kids through college. One son works in Seoul and another in Phuket, Thailand. Gotta go visit.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Passadumkeg

                              Love you... but you already knew that.

                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                I nearly added to the above post that I was going to retire and become Sam's house boy.

                            2. Not nearly so exotic as where the rest of you have lived and cooked but we lived in Vancouver for a year at a time for several years.

                              It's a delightful city with lots of small interesting restos representing the cuisine of many cultures. And shopping and grocery choices are much the same as New York and Los Angeles where I've mainly lived. But, despite Vancouverites' penchant for traveling to the sunnier climes of SoCal and Mexico, they have no real Mexican culinary scene. I'm sure they think they do but there are only a couple places where the food is an acceptable facsimile -- I actually found a place that was recommended for their food and they made enchiladas with salsa instead of enchilada sauce -- and fewer where you can get a full range of ingredients for cooking at home.

                              We were living there with a 13yo who really was convinced he was going to die without some Mexican. So, being a good mom, I did what I had to do -- on trips to LA I stocked up on canned enchilada sauce and tortillas so I could do it myself. Only arriving at YVR, I was signaled by one of their security dogs. When their equivalent of Homeland Security people (did I mention this was just some months after 9/ll?) went through my luggage and couldn't find anything but tortillas and enchilada sauce they weren't sure if I was that clever at hiding things or just stupid enough to be bringing in such pointless stuff. It took about an hour an a half to convince people who didn't cook much less shop for Mexican groceries to be convinced that it was the latter.

                              Then there were the times when my kids were very small and watching American TV as most Canadians do a good bit of the time and seeing commercials for McDonald's Happy Meals with the toys they were currently hawking. There weren't a lot of fast food places at the time and the few that there were in Vancouver didn't have the toys. I think you could get "Happy Meals" but they were just the scaled down portions. So when I crossed the border about once a month to get things that the kids thought they had to have that weren't being distributed in Vancouver yet, I'd have to buy Happy Meals for the neighborhood and throw out the food and save the boxes and toys for the kids. That was always fun to declare at Customs too. The first few trips through took longer but after a few months they knew me (waaaay pre-9/ll) and let me through pretty quickly.

                              Love, love, LOVED all the tiny mom and pop kitchen equipment stores that Vancouver has. I got tons of knives at great prices and a full set of Mason Cash mixing bowls from one small enough for a single egg to one large enough to bathe a baby in.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: rainey

                                I moved to Norway from New New Mexico. In Norway, I tried making stacked enchiladas from lefsa (potato flat bread) and powdered cayenne. What a failure. Brought back a tortilla press next visit. Blew out our blender, in a whirring flash of blue light when I forgot and plugged the 110 blender into the 220 outlet w/o the transformer. (Did that to a Norelco shaver too.) In Helsinki, we had to order peanut butter, by the case, from a health food store. At the central market I bought some some beautiful mushrooms that I thought were morels. Just for fun, I asked my next door neighbor how he prepared them. Hew was a member of the Finnish gastronomic society, and asked me if I knew they were FALSE morels, and poisonous unless dried or boiled for 10 minutes. Live & learn (hopefully). In Bolivia, I ordered "canina de los montanas" (rabbit of the mountain.)in a restaurant. It didn't taste like any rabbit I knew. Back, in the hotel, looked it up in the dictionary; Guniea pig. The kids all went eeuuuu! Caught and ate pirahnna (used raw beef as bait), rather than vice versa. The first morning in Santa Cruz, left the family at the hotel for a early morning walk, popped into El Horno (the oven), a coffee shop, and ordered what everyone was eating and discovered SALTENAS (kinda like an empamada, but much better.), food crack! I took a plate of them back to the hotel and the whole family was hooked. We still make saltena crack drug runs from Maine to NYC (500 mi.) to a Bolivian restaruant (How many Bolivian restaurants do you know?) and bring back dozens of saltenas. Enough for now. Next picking blueberries....

                                1. re: rainey

                                  I went to Kathmandu for thanksgiving and was so excited to smuggle home (Bhutan) some avocados - didn't want to put them in checked baggage so I put them in my jacket pockets. The woman who patted me down at security found them, was a little confused, then just laughed and laughed and let them through. Damn those were good.