How to Pack Your Diet When Moving Abroad

So, you’re making the big move!

It’s a brand new year and you’re excited about the move you’ve planned outside your passport country. Congratulations! You’ve thought long and hard about which clothes you’ll need to bring for your new adventures. You’ve mixed and matched your shoes and accessories, tucking and squeezing one last thing into every possible corner of your luggage. You’ve agonized over the decision of which valued household items will make the journey with you. But have you thought about how to pack your diet with you for the big move? Have you researched what new foods you might want to add to your diet in your new location?

When I use the word ‘diet’, I’m talking about the sum total of what you choose to eat on a regular basis. As a nomadic chef, I understand that these foods might change from season to season, as does availability from one location to another. But I want you to consider more than just the latest fad diet you decided to try as a special detox at the beginning of the year. In fact, I specifically remember one January in Japan when all of the bananas mysteriously disappeared from the supermarket shelves! When I inquired with the store’s staff, I learned that a popular celebrity had recently conducted an interview on national television during which she’d raved about how her favorite fruit had helped her to lose weight. The unexpected unavailability of this newly popular fruit was a minor inconvenience to me and my family. On the other hand, a friend who’d recently weaned her infant off of breastmilk suddenly found herself in search of baby formula and powdered cereals to supplement her child’s diet!

How would you cope with the sudden disappearance of a staple in your diet? Are you one of those individuals who chooses to abstain from eating certain foods for ethical or moral reasons? Do you have any particular foods or categories of ingredients to which you are allergic or especially sensitive? Does your palate accommodate the typical flavor and spice combinations local to the area to which you will be moving? These are all important factors to consider as you prepare to shift your entire life from one place to another. And there are more.

Learning the Language of Your Diet in Your New Home

We all know how incredibly important it is to learn the local parlance when moving to a new country. As global citizens, we are aware that we can spend years learning to understand and communicate in a new language. Of course, we jump right in to master basic greetings and everyday phrases in our target tongue, but what about the language of food?

It’s important to remember that dictionaries often translate all words literally, which may or may not be helpful when it comes to finding the foods you seek in your travels.

Try utilizing helpful resources such as cookbooks and/or blogs in the target language. Local expat groups can be an excellent way to find out where to buy your favorite snack food from back home, or what local ingredient you can substitute in your beloved family cookie recipe when what you normally use is unavailable. From personal experience, I can also tell you that local chefs and home cooks can be an absolutely invaluable resource for learning what’s what in your new home. It can also be beneficial to know the Latin names of the plants from which your favorite herbs and spices are derived in order to help identify them in local markets.

Making tortillas the old-fashioned way in Mexico.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

It’s not necessary for one to have a restrictive diet to face challenges eating in a new country. I happen to enjoy a bit of everything, and yet have seen time and again how diners from all walks of life can struggle to adjust to a new food culture in various places around the world. For example, the shift to a relatively high fiber and whole grain diet in the early weeks of cooking school in Italy created a bit of gastrointestinal distress within my class. Expecting to eat a lot of pasta and pizza is one thing. Actually consuming a large quantity of ancient grains and naturally-leavened sourdough bread was another matter entirely!

Food culture varies widely around the world, and it’s important to understand what you’ll actually be getting when you order a dish in your new home. Many people would not expect to find pork dishes in a Muslim country or beef dishes in India because of the respective religious beliefs in those places. But did you know that not all Indian dishes are vegetarian? Or that some Indians do eat beef? Or how about the fact that it may be possible to get pork dishes in places with a large Muslim population. You just need to know what to ask for and whom to ask! Albania is one such place. Traditional restaurants often serve a variety of grilled meats here in the Balkans. A recent trip to a local restaurant found our kind waiter questioning whether or not we wanted pork included with our selection.

While in the Philippines, it was very interesting for me to note the number of dishes in which chicken, pork and beef were all included together. When I inquired of my hosts as to the commonality of such a practice, they were shocked that anyone would feel the need to separate the proteins in a dish in the first place. The idea that one could be so selective in such a poverty-stricken area was unthought of to these very thrifty and resourceful cooks.

And then there is the issue of approaching local delicacies. Adidas made perfect sense as a name for the three-pronged chicken foot I was offered in the Philippines. But that didn’t make it any less of a surprise when my new local friends first presented the dish to me! Nor did the name nato prepare me for the powerfully pungent aroma of the fermented soybean dish that is either loved or hated by the Japanese, without much middle ground. Are you fond of insects or embryos on your plate? Sometimes, the best thing you can do is research in advance so you won’t be completely floored when something entirely foreign appears on the table in front of you. And always be sure to put on your culinary adventurer’s cap before heading out for dinner!

Plant-based Problems and Preparation Procedures

Perhaps fish is considered in the same category as meat and perhaps it’s not. If you consider your diet vegetarian or vegan, you might not think this particular classification has any bearing on your eating habits. But are you sure?

I remember advising a vegetarian chef who was preparing to travel to Japan for the first time regarding ordering dishes while out and about in a major city. While living in the US, she’d become accustomed to requesting dishes without meat to accommodate her plant-based diet. She was very surprised to learn that that particular request might result in her being presented with a plate of sashimi, or slices of raw fish, as they are seen as separate from meat (land animals) in Japan. Even her miso soup or vegetable-filled okonomiyaki could be prepared with a fish broth or covered in fish flakes and many Japanese chefs would see nothing wrong with presenting them to a diner who requested ‘no meat’.

In the same way, many vegetable sides in the American South are often cooked in lard, boiled in bone broth or tossed with meat. They are still called vegetable dishes and are usually found with the sides or veggies on a restaurant’s menu. However, the description will not always specify that the green beans are laced with bacon or that the potatoes were sauteed in pork fat.

Vegan Apple Rosemary Cake

What does it mean to be vegetarian or vegan? To have a food intolerance or allergy? While you may be clear on what is and is not acceptable, the real question comes down to whether or not the cooks preparing your food understand and can acknowledge the same dietary restrictions as you personally define them. It’s important to be clear about what comes down to a personal preference, which may be flexible, and a life-threatening condition which is necessarily more rigid.

I’ve had the privilege of working with some really lovely people during my time in commercial kitchens all over the world. One cook in particular had a very hard time wrapping her head around the idea of making gluten-free, vegan desserts. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand the concept of a gluten-free diet or a vegan diet individually. In fact, she had a family member with celiac disease for whom she often baked. The trouble came when we needed to combine the two restrictions into a single dish. You see, she often added copious amounts of butter to her homemade gluten-free pastries to add flavor and texture that she felt was lacking compared to the ones she made with traditional wheat flours. Her deep desire to add a dairy-laden product to a gluten-free cake came not from malice, but from a place of concern for the enjoyment of the eater.

Then there was the elderly neighbor who insisted on trying to feed a young girl nuts after she stated very clearly in the local language that she couldn’t eat them. The kind woman thought she was doing the mother a favor by encouraging the child to get over her ‘picky’ eating tendencies. In all her decades living and feeding families in her rural Asian neighborhood, she’d never encountered someone with a nut allergy before. She had absolutely no idea that consuming the offered foods could have killed someone!


DIY Your Diet-on-the-Go

So what do I, the nomadic chef, suggest for the adventurous individual making the leap ‘abroad’ (wherever that may be)? Take your diet into your own hands and cook for yourself! Having a few go-to dishes in your back pocket is helpful, especially if they are made with ingredients that are normally a part of the local diet in your new home. Take the time to explore exactly what that looks like. Discover local specialties that fit into your particular dietary guidelines. Sample a few dishes that catch your fancy at different neighborhood establishments. Then, give it a go in your own kitchen. Don’t be afraid to try something new, either.

You have acquired your new language skills. You’ve discerned the omnivore’s dilemma regarding delicacies. You’ve perused the various preparations for plants. And, you’ve explored the food culture in your new home.

What’s next? Host a dinner party for your new friends and neighbors, of course! Sharing is caring, after all.

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