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How to Deal With Food Culture Shock While Living Abroad

crab, food, taiwan

On my first morning in Mongolia, I stepped out of the ger to see a man knock a goat on the head with a mallet. He then did the same to a sheep, and skinned both while our group of five tourists watched, open-mouthed.

“There’s a celebration tonight,” our guide explained. “A wedding feast.” Then the kicker: “Also, your breakfast.”

A grandmotherly woman straddled a chair and expertly picked through the animals’ innards, squeezing out the contents of the intestines into a bowl. She then filled them with blood and dropped them in a pot of boiling water. Seconds later, there it was: our breakfast of fresh blood sausages. I didn’t want to bite into mine, but the woman was watching us and there was nothing but grassy field in every direction. So... we ate them.

So, how can you deal with the inevitable food culture shock while living abroad? As usual, we have some thoughts on the subject...

Food culture shock can be a little bit like staring in your own episode of Survivor, except sometimes people’s feelings are at stake. If it’s just you staring down a bowl of live crickets, there’s nothing stopping you from walking away. When it’s you and the crickets and the person who shared them with you, it’s harder to say no. So, how can you deal with the inevitable food culture shock while living abroad? As usual, we have some thoughts on the subject...

Consider Your Options

food, rice, taiwan

Of course you don’t have to eat something you don’t want to, but at the same time, choosing not to eat said-unidentifiable-food may make a bad impression on your hosts.

That doesn’t necessarily mean scarfing down a lamb chop when you’re a dedicated vegetarian, but it might be accepting a bowl of fish head soup or cow tongue for breakfast when you’d really prefer cereal.

Imagine that the situation was reversed, and you’d offered a plate of loaded tachos (yep, that’s tater tots and nachos) to a foreign traveler. If they turn it down with a look of disgust, you might find yourself feeling affronted. On the flip side, if they tried your favorite dish from home and loved it, it would make you pretty darn happy, would it not?

So before you decide to eat or not to eat a strange new food, consider if it would offend anyone or not. Consider also, could trying this make you a new friend? And who knows, even if it looks daunting, it may just be your new favorite dish.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

On that note, respectfulness is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with your own personal food culture shock.

After all, they call it culture shock because it can be just that -- a shock. A row of pig’s heads for sale at your hometown farmer’s market might throw everyone into a tizzy, but in other parts of the world it’s par for the course. It is totally normal to experience shock, but remember to respect the culture you’re in. That means you don’t have to buy the pig’s head, but please don’t run away from it shrieking, either.

A side note: you may want to take photos of some of the more unusual foods, but remember to ask permission before doing so. Would you like it if someone started snapping away as you ate a corn dog?

Ask Questions

cooking, bread

If you don’t know what something is or how to cook it, ask! Admitting that you don’t know something is disarming, and though people may crack a smile, they will more than likely offer to help you.

Knowing the local language, though undeniably helpful, isn’t essential either. Get creative and use body language like pointing at the food and shrugging your shoulders. Especially if you want to learn how to cook something, you may be able to have a kind soul demonstrate how to prepare a new dish without ever having spoken a word in each other's language.

It’s amazing how many successful conversations don’t require a mutual language, and how much you can learn about a new culture by standing back and watching every day processes, like cooking, unfold.

Let Go of Expectations

Wait… you mean that I can’t get a Gordita Supreme in Mexico?

When you realize that the food in a certain country isn’t what you expected, it can incur some culture shock. What was your favorite dish at the Chinese takeaway may not even exist in China; likewise for your curry of choice that is nowhere to be found in India.

Just don’t let this stop you from finding a new favorite! This is where things get interesting anyway and you have the opportunity to test out the real local cuisine.

Get Used to the Food by Visiting the Grocery Store

I love going to new grocery stores while traveling, and block out whole hours when I’m checking one out for the first time.

Not only is it fun (or at least, I think so) it's also a good way to get used to what’s on offer and get an idea of the ingredients you’re working with without necessarily having anyone watching or pressuring you in to trying something you don't want to.

Your taste buds will adapt, even if it doesn't seem like they will.

Roam the aisles and take your time to inspect the items that strike you as unusual or interesting.

The same goes for markets; slow down and treat it like a destination. The more you see some of these unfamiliar foods while you're abroad, the less shocked you will be.

Balance Food Homesickness and Trying New Things

Escargot in France

I can definitely identify with the feeling you get when you unexpectedly come across a can of root beer in a convenience store far from home.

When you’re living abroad, food cravings can hit hard, and there are usually ways to access what you’re missing (albeit at a considerably higher price).

Don’t get sucked in!

It’s nearly always cheaper to eat what’s readily available where you live, plus you can miss out on so much deliciousness if you stick to ordering tubs of Crisco from Costco online.

Save those familiar treats for occasional meals, not all of them.

Get Creative

Your taste buds will adapt, even if it doesn’t seem like they will. I’m the kind of person who follows recipes to the letter, and if I can’t find the exact ingredient, I don’t make the dish. When you’re living abroad though, that doesn’t always work. Chances are, you won't be able to find the exact ingredients you always used for your mom's chicken parmesan, or you might waste a whole day trying to track down an avocado in Germany.

Don't let this get to you. Instead, relax your concept of recipes and you’ll become a fusion expert, drawing from the flavors of your new country to recreate dishes you know and love.

Now I find myself in Australia, seeking out the right texture of tofu or ducking into the Asian grocery store to pick up kimchi -- something I never thought would happen!

Embrace Your Food Culture Shock

New food is one part of the travel experience, and the bottom line is, you don’t have to like it. You don’t even have to try it, but part of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone is experimenting with new foods.

Now, I won’t say “try anything once,” because sometimes you just know that fried tarantula on a stick isn’t for you. I will say to be flexible and open to new food choices. Some of the food you encounter may give you a temporary shock, but most of it is going to open up new culinary roads that you’ll remember with pleasure long after you’ve left the country. Now get out there, and enjoy!

Photo Credits: Melody Shieh and Chrissie Faupel.
Photo of Lauren Fitzpatrick

Writer, expat, and former working holiday addict setting up shop in Australia. Embracing surfing, reversed seasons, and cricket, but not Vegemite.