Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What's So Different About Cooking Abroad?

Food is food, right? I mean, regardless of where you live you'll still find a way to make food and eat food, so why all the fuss about the challenges of cooking abroad?

Now picture your favorite food in your mind (for me it's this macaroni & cheese) and tell me... what would you do if your mom or grandmother or other favorite cook wasn't around to make your favorites?

Yup, I thought so. Guess you might have to learn to make it yourself, wouldn't you?

But it's true that cooking in Egypt is pretty much the same as cooking in the States. We get most things here. And if you can't make it at home, chances are that you can find an American restaurant somewhere in Cairo that will feed that urge.

For me, it's the best of the best that I make at home. I have yet to find a restaurant in Cairo that even serves macaroni & cheese. I tried a beef stroganoff dish once at a local restaurant only to find that it had a tomato sauce rather than a creamy sauce. And while there are several Italian restaurants that serve lasagna, I am still partial to the non-spicy, simple version we always made at home.

And I won't even BEGIN to try to tell you about the disaster somebody called a Thanksgiving turkey dinner that we foolishly tried one year here in Cairo!

So maybe my problem is that I'm a bit of a food snob. The imitations just won't do for me. I want to eat it the way I REMEMBER it!

For me, cooking abroad is more about the process of preparing to cook rather than anything else. Because the actual cooking is basically the same.

Let me elaborate...

Buying local or imported. The big difference between local and imported products in Egypt is the price. So, yes, there are a lot of things available in Egypt. But they certainly don't come cheap.

So when I choose to buy the imported version (that is - if there's actually a local version), there's usually a good reason why. For example, choosing imported red Cheddar over the local yellow Cheddar is all about the taste. Now I do use the local Cheddar in sliced form in grilled cheese sandwiches or in shredded form to top fajitas, but I do not - I repeat - do NOT use it for my macaroni and cheese. Only the sharp red Cheddar will do for homemade macaroni and cheese. I have tried the local Cheddar, and it failed the taste test miserably.

Making substitutions. I always tread carefully whenever I change a recipe in any way. Some substitutions work well and are barely noticeable, while others change the taste entirely and you're left with a completely different recipe.

For beef stroganoff, sour cream is typically used to create that cool, creamy taste we love so well. And sour cream is available in Egypt... sometimes. But did you know that plain yogurt is a perfect substitute for sour cream? I've gotten to where I almost always use plain yogurt for sour cream (even though it's available sometimes) because you can find yogurt in any little supermarket here in Egypt.

Adding seasonings. As I mentioned in Intro to My Cairo Kitchen: The Key to Successful Cooking Abroad, having a small supply of spices I brought from the States has been really helpful. I might be able to find some of these spices here, but there is no guarantee that a particular one will be available in stores here right when I need it. Plus I can never guarantee the freshness of what I do find.

The great news is that I can make many things from scratch just from using what I already have in my cabinet. Want fajitas? Make your own fajita seasoning! Want Italian dressing but don't want to pay an arm & a leg for it? Make your own! I have dried basil for our favorite Lemon Basil Grilled Chicken and dried oregano for Greek salad dressing. I have cinnamon for apple crisp and chili powder for homemade chili on that one cold day in January (hey, it's Cairo!)

So as you can see, cooking abroad is really about the pre-planning for me.

It's the reason why I bought mini muffin pans from the States on our last visit. And the reason why I restock my baking powder and baking soda every year I go home.

Because I like to cook, and I like to eat. And being able to cook the things that I like to eat makes me feel just a little more at home here.

So maybe it's not so different.

But it sure makes a difference to me.

1 comment:

  1. I stumbled across this GREAT website while searching for sour cream in Egypt. I am going to make a homemade Bleu Cheese dressing and needed buttermilk (found the word for that - laban rayeb) and sour cream. I wondered if yogurt will do, and now I know it will.

    When I first came here I had such a hard time, I was used to everything being so easy to get. I'm from the US (Texas) and we are so darn spoiled. Anyway, after spending my first year complaining because there was nothing I was familiar with... I started making my own stuff... now my favorite tacos are the ones I make with my own seasoning and my own homemade shells. My favorite pizza... mine. I never realized just how yummy stuff can be made completely from scratch... more difficult, yes... worth it, yes. :)

    Last year I brought measuring cups and spoons and some seasonings back from the States, this year I will bring that and some baking pans. I'll be set then.

    I'm going to keep your website handy, thanks for this.



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