When introducing food vocabulary, I asked students what their favorite food was. When they asked me, my response was: “Free food. Or food someone else cooked.” But even a non-foodie learns to appreciate food when living abroad. Here’s some wonderful food that can sometimes only be experienced on foreign soil. My first exotic food was experienced in Canada.
PINEAPPLE & HAM PIZZA, SALMON, FRIED PASTA – CANADA
Back in 1974, pineapple & ham pizza was a rarity, introduced to me by fellow writing students in Vancouver, Canada. Another classmate, a gourmet cook, introduced me to salmon. It felt like I had put the entire ocean into my mouth. She also managed to make me consume shrimp for the first time. At 24, I had finally entered the real world of gourmet eating.
Years later, a playwright classmate took me to “The Hole in the Wall” Italian restaurant. I tasted his food then ordered it: three kinds of fried pasta. Occasionally, I fry my cooked pasta in butter, adding garlic, black pepper, and parmesan cheese.
BUBBLE TEA – TAIWAN
A colleague raved about bubble tea. I was not a tea drinker. “But it’s cold, not hot,” she told me. “It’s tea,” I recounted. “But it’s milk tea! You have to try it!” Finally, I did. The sweetness seduced me and the delight of sipping little gelatin balls through the wide straw surprised me. Ten years later, vacationing in Vancouver, bubble tea was available at an Asian restaurant!
CARDOMEN, ARABIC SPICES, SPINACH & CHEESE SPANIKOPITTA – SAUDI ARABIA, THE UAE, AND OMAN
Cardomen in coffee is a stable in Arabia I never tasted since I never drink coffee. But cardomen in a pasta dish, I felt I was consuming a thousand dollar meal!
Finding a clove stem in my rice helped me understand why the rice tasted so good.
I avoided hummus thinking it was fattening. Once I learned to blend chickpeas, tahina and garlic, and top with olive oil, hummus became a healthy protein snack with bread or crackers.
Spanakopitta, spinach and cheese cooked in a pastry, was fantastic.
DURIAN – INDONESIA
This notorious fruit’s outer shell resembles a pineapple, but its woody exterior sports sharp, lethal spikes. Even in its homeland, restaurants and hotels forbid its presence. Sliced open, its noxious odor sickens most people. When my students brought this to class, its yellow fruit tasted like a pleasant combination of garlic and bananas. However, the seeds seemed larger than the edible fruit. Additionally, it can be dangerous, causing miscarriages. When eaten while consuming large amounts of alcohol, it can cause death.
FIGS – UAE
“Hmm, what’s that?” I asked a Palestinian colleague. “Fresh figs.” He bought me one. To my surprise, it was astoundingly tasty. Fresh figs are available here in Portugal too – far superior to the Fig Newton cookies of my childhood which I detested.
FRUIT DRINK PARFAITS – OMAN
Luscious fruit drinks topped with whipped cream, cookies and a red cherry seduced me in Oman. Once I learned nearly a fourth cup of sugar was included, I ordered them sugarless.
GADO-GADO/PINEAPPLE COOKIES – INDONESIA
A plate of vegetables topped with peanut sauce and a fried egg. In 1986, gado-gado was my first taste of peanut sauce, later to be encountered in Thai food.
In Indonesian, pineapple cookies were common. The flavourful fruit encased in a baked cookie dough felt healthy.
ICE CREAM – LAKE BALATOON, HUNGARY
How shockingly good and new could ice cream taste! But it did. My colleague who had invited me to join her fiancée in Hungary informed me it was Italian ice cream.
JAPANESE FOOD – JAPAN
Tiny dishes, one after another, some wrapped in seaweed, eventually satisfying. Rarely seen and too expensive outside Japan.
MANGOES – OMAN
In Ibri, a student, graciously sat on the carpeted floor with me in her home. She expertly removed a mango’s outer skin, placing sliced pieces onto a plate for me. I never learned to do that without making a mess.
NATALS – PORTUGAL
These tiny egg cream pies are often topped with cinnamon. They’re also popular in China, having migrated from Macau, the former Portuguese colony, to the mainland.
NUTELLA – FRANCE
At a home stay while studying French in Avignon, my host added this to her yogurt. Its chocolate and hazelnut flavour was addicting. Years later, it’s a worldwide favourite.
PAPAYE – INDONESIA
Cut into square cubes, this delicious fruit in Indonesia is a brand of its own. Papaya I’ve had elsewhere never tasted as good.
PISTACHIOS – SAUDI ARABIA
The first time I ate these nuts was in Saudi Arabia in 1986, while haggling over shipping my treasures home to the USA. Pistachios are available in large bags in Oman, but in Portugal, their expense matches their marvelous flavor.
VEGETARIAN BUFFETS – TAIWAN
An experience I miss is Taiwan’s vegetarian buffet restaurants – with a selection of 15 to 20 dishes! Inexpensive, fast and with endless variety to choose five or six small servings. Tofu, pressed and browned by soy-sauce, resembled meat and tasted as good.
VIETNAMESE SALAD – FRANCE
One vacation in Paris led me into a Vietnamese restaurant. Still nervous about ordering Asian food, I ordered a salad. Twenty years later, I can’t remember what was in the salad, but recall an overwhelming delight, surprise, and satisfaction.
YOPLAIT YOGURT: USA VS. FRANCE
While living in Lyon, a French acquaintance took offense when I said the Yoplait yogurt in America was superior to what France offered. I still miss Yoplait’s flavors such as banana-custard, key-lime pie, cheesecake and other exotic choices absent in France. Even chocolate yogurt is available in some American grocery stores!
CALIFORNIA BURGERS with avocado, bacon and more I first experienced in Los Angeles.
CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES – add mint to the cookie dough doubles their flavor. Since chocolate chips are unavailable overseas, I replaced them with colorful M&Ms.
CORN – as a child, my sisters and I roamed by a nearby farm. We picked corn fresh from the stalk and immediately ate it. To this day, that corn was the best ever.
NACHOS were a San Francisco surprise back in 1976 with black olives, melted cheese and sour cream on tortilla chips. Now available worldwide.
SHRIMP FRUIT SALAD,a recipe in THE LOVERS’ COOKBOOK created by Ms. Powers, a San Francisco fellow writer, included with the shrimp: bananas, onions, olive oil, and orange juice. Chilled 10-20 minutes in the freezer multiplied its flavor a thousand times.
SPUMONI ICE CREAM – Most of the time I could only find this in Chicago. I later learned the yummy green section was made from pistachio nuts.
SUSHI – was introduced to me by a Los Angeles friend, a Hollywood grip. Finally, at the old age of 31 in 1981, I tasted seaweed clothed California rolls as well as an assortment of raw fish. Here in Portugal, sushi restaurants abound. Even Oman offers sushi!
I didn’t like Korean kimchi, red bean dishes, nor Korean spices. However, Korean restaurant special beef meals were excellent. It was also fun to see scissors used to cut the meat. Egyptian food was memorable for causing food poisoning. Turkish restaurants offered a buffet of breads but not much else worth eating. Portuguese fish dishes usually disappoint. I could not believe being served an entire crab with its complications to messily crack it open and eat. I preferred American style pressed and easily eaten crab meat patties.
As a child, I saw cooking as a female activity. I avoided it. I never desired a wedding gown nor played Ken and Barbie. I was a tomboy who climbed trees, ran around the block and threw kitchen knives into my plasterboard bedroom walls. Only in old age have I learned the value of food and how eating is often a social event with life-long health benefits.
I’m grateful for having experienced many world cultures and shared exotic food with so many wonderful people who have taught me so much.