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In Defense of Eating American Food Abroad

Food + Drink
by Turner Wright Jun 30, 2017

LAST MONTH, Trump’s international trip was headline news. One event probably stuck out amongst expats: In order to cater to his needs (and most likely ingratiate themselves to him), Saudi Arabia arranged to have Trump served his customary steak and ketchup dish in lieu of something more local.

From time to time, long-term American expats have certainly been known to jump headfirst into a burger or a slice of pizza after eating foreign food for so long. In this day and age, it’s relatively easy to find a variety of cuisines in large and mid-sized cities anywhere. A lot of people jumped on Trump for taking refuge in comfort food so early into his trip.

An American abroad — whether he’s the president or just your average Joe/Jane in outer Mongolia — represents their country, knowingly or not. If I were to stop by a McDonald’s or KFC in Japan, I’d be giving credence to the stereotype Americans are a fast food eating obese people. If I’m with a group of expats and failed to remember a key fact in the news, I’d just confirm their misconception Americans are ignorant of the world.

Sometimes, it’s okay to eat your country’s comfort food abroad

Choosing to regularly eat your home-food abroad may earn you a few shady looks from entrenched expats, but unless you’re outright rejecting local delicacies out of fear, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a change of pace, even during a week’s vacation. And this impulse is not unique to Americans.

My Korean friend came to visit me in San Francisco. He had only a few days in the city, during which time I casually mentioned that I knew plenty of decent Korean restaurants should he want a “break.” He confidently stated he wanted to broaden his palette.

It only took two days before he told me he just wanted some rice. This wasn’t him denying the experience of eating in a multicultural city, but just paying attention to his digestion and knowing what he needed to have the energy to keep traveling.

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of wanting to reconnect with your own culture, or missing the comforts of home. Case in point: turkey. Finding this bird in Asia is still a challenge, short of ordering it frozen through the mail. The first time I lived in South Korea, my Aussie neighbors thought they had found a local shop selling turkey legs, only to discover their “smorked [sic] turkey” was in fact just chicken. I also got stuck on a bus for eight hours during a snowstorm, trying to make my way to Seoul for an all-you-can-eat Thanksgiving buffet. In the end, I wouldn’t change a thing. Finally biting into some roasted turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving in another country was an experience worth sharing.

Sometimes, finding your comfort food is an adventure in itself

Finding foods abroad that are notoriously difficult to obtain can bring you to some new twists and turns in your travels. Do you know where to find cupcakes in the middle of Athens? S’mores in Bali? Mexican food in Arequipa (not as common as you might think)? Fast food and common American supermarket items are ubiquitous, but to find something fresh or made with the kind of care you’d expect from your mother’s kitchen is rare. If you were to find a Starbucks had been opened in the middle of the Burmese jungle — not as far off in the future as you might think — after ten years in Myanmar, you’d probably revel in the familiarity before worrying about the impact on local cuisine.

While our food choices abroad may label us as Americans, that’s okay. We’re reaching out temporarily for comfort and familiarity, but not pushing what’s more readily available to us out of the picture entirely. Relax, and enjoy the challenge of searching for the familiar in a foreign country.

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