By Donna Williams
Cooking from scratch: It ain’t what you think
Many of us realize too late that our idea of “home cookin'” involves adding water to a package of muffin mix. Before going overseas, you might want to have a talk with someone eligible for AARP. Ask them how to bake a cake. Or prepare vegetables.
I once spent an evening stateside preparing dinner with my octogenarian cousin. As we were catching up on each other’s news, she began dicing carrots and celery with a small paring knife. This was no quick chop into chucks for throwing in a pan. She was finely dicing them–methodically, by hand–like an artisan.
Initially my brain screamed at the lack of even a mini food-processor, and her insistence on such tiny pieces. Then I realized, “Where am I going? Nowhere. Why do I feel rushed?” She’s fascinating and funny. I love her stories. Why couldn’t I just be in the moment?
I’m a little too busy for that
That evening reminded me of an American friend who had served in eastern Europe, in a country where nearly every meal involved tomatoes and cucumbers. As she was cutting vegetables one night with her hosts, she told them how back home we don’t have time to prep like this. We buy frozen bagged vegetables, or use a machine. They thought this was strange.
Then my friend began to realize how many times during her day she found herself saying of American life, “Oh, we don’t have time for that.” It begged a larger question. “What are we so busy doing?”
Overseas, you may be busied with killing and/or defeathering your chicken dinner. You may be expected to pause your day to prepare chai for a neighbor visiting unannounced (this is a good thing). And you may have to shop daily at a variety of stores.
Ingredients and tools: subject to availability
“Farm to table” and “seasonal ingredients” are way more than buzzwords. In most places, you’ll have an abundance of one ingredient in certain months, and an excess of another the following season. (Translation: No one will be shipping strawberries in January to your corner grocery.) You may learn 101 uses for fresh limes, for example.
Your milk may be powdered, bagged, boxed, or personally boiled (just say no to infectious disease). Sugar may be expensive, processed differently, and have a different taste. It’s the same for packaged foods like cereal. They can be rare and pricey.
But you can be creative. A friend of mine in Africa makes pouch drinks for her kids using small, tightly knotted plastic bags. You can make your own chips. Or trail mix. Or taco seasoning, as well as all the other spice mixes. Invent your own convenience foods; Pinterest has board after board of make-your-own-mixes. (As long as you can find all of the ingredients, right?)
Your stove overseas may include an actual fire and involve the collecting of wood or fuel.
Refrigeration (uh, and your freezer) may be unreliable due to routine power outages.
You may have to retrieve your own water, or filter it, or pay for its delivery, having it pumped into a tank at regular intervals. This takes planning. But don’t think for a second you are in control.
Shopping: a human experience
The local market may be a place, but it may also be your landlord who sells eggs, or a local farmer delivering bananas. They may or may not be available on a given day.
Haggling is real. Learn what it’s like where you are going.
Buying in bulk is usually more expensive. Most cultures do not give discounts for hoarding.
In urban areas, fruit may be outrageously expensive. Buy ’em anyway! You, too, can avoid scurvy!
Watch your own customs
In the West, it is polite to eat noodles quietly. In the East, loud slurping is encouraged. You may have to learn new meal rituals.
One team of global workers was in a place where windows had no glass, so the neighbors saw their every move. A neighbor challenged one lady, “You Christians say you have no idols! But I have seen you! Every night, you put the food on the table, you put the two idols on the table, then you bow your heads and you PRAY!”
You guessed it. Such are the dangers of salt and pepper.
Don’t fear. Research
Get you a contact in your host culture, whether a local, or a team member already there. Ask questions about what to expect in daily life. They may tell you to pack your own spices, or to buy other goods beforehand. (They may have a shopping list for you to bring for them!)
While you’re still here, find a church from a different culture. Go to family gatherings where traditional meals are served. The church you find may not be of the culture you will be moving to, but it will expand the experiences you can draw from overseas. And it will prepare you for being “other”. Find an international festival and go and eat and meet people and listen.
And of course, pray. You won’t find all of these conditions in every culture–but ask God to prepare you for the ones awaiting you.
Editor’s notes: An effective vegetable disinfectant, in my experience: Keep vinegar in one spray bottle, hydrogen peroxide in another (but you may need to dilute this. In our host country, the undiluted strength would burn skin). Spray the two spray bottles on produce at the same time, or one right after the other. This also works well to disinfect countertops from raw meat. This article from Good Housekeeping backs me up.
For produce with thin skin (like lettuce and tomatoes), bring liquid grapefruit seed extract (NOT grapeseed). A few drops in a sink will do just fine. We also brought tablets of grapefruit seed extract; when we were having tummy troubles, one tablet a day could work wonders.
A word on meat overseas: Though it’s usually great to support local businesses with your purchases, all local shops may not have adequate refrigeration, clean processing utensils/gloves, or insect control. (I read once about some fly-free meat in the market…that someone was spraying with insecticide when no one was looking.) Make sure your meat is processed and stored with food-safe methods. Remember that when people wear gloves, they may not be as attentive to what their hands touch; cross-contamination can be an issue. Get advice from other expats on shops (and restaurants) that won’t make you sick.
Gluten-free or allergic eaters: Remember that food may not be clearly labeled overseas, and may be processed in factories/on machinery that has not been adequately cleaned. If you’re celiac, be wise about cross-contamination possibilities. When in doubt, skip out–and don’t be afraid to speak to the chef at a restaurant to kindly explain your needs.