University of Wisconsin–Madison

How to cook for yourself in a foreign country

Instead of writing a piece on “how to say goodbye to wonderful friends and a country you’ve fallen in love with”, I’m going to write about cooking. I might manage to get through the former subject at a later point.

The first rule of cooking successfully in a foreign country is that you must be open-minded. This is truer in some countries than others, because different foreign countries have varying levels of similarity to US food culture. For example, although I haven’t been to China, I imagine it would be much harder to find American style food there than here in Spain. Still, it took me a while to find things I like in Spanish grocery stores.

One of the problems I encountered here is that American food is generally more expensive and of a lower quality than Spanish food. For example, you can buy Kraft mac N cheese or lucky charms at a special American grocery store, but the cereal is nearly 10 euro and the Mac N cheese is 5. You could get pretty decent meals at sit-down restaurants for these prices, not to mention better nutrition. Hamburgers are similar. Expensive, and the buns really aren’t the same because European bread is different. There’s nothing wrong with falling back on a few American habits if you’re craving something specific, but I wouldn’t recommend relying on these foods long term. The fact is, you could each much better for cheaper.

The first step to learning to cook for yourself is observation. Scope out authentic restaurants and watch what your roommates eat. For example, I quickly found out that meat in Spain is always pork or tuna. You may know of Iberian ham, which is a classic Spanish delicacy. Their obsession with pork doesn’t stop there– everything has pork. For Americans from the Midwest like myself who grew up eating a lot of meat, this is your substitute. I tried ground beef a few times but it was usually pretty expensive, mixed with a shady pork mixture, or both. (I bought weird pork mixed ground beef once and could barely eat it). Tuna isn’t my favorite but I experimented with it a few times over the semester and grew to like it in a few things.

Another Spanish oddity is its olive oil. I know, this doesn’t sound like an oddity because we use it quite often in the US, but believe me the quantity of oil that Spaniards put in their food is insane. Olive oil takes another order of magnitude, which makes sense because Spain is one of the largest producers of oil. For example, good recipes for tortilla Española (my favorite Spanish dish) involve at least a half gallon of olive oil. I watched my friends pour all of that in and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Spaniards use olive oil in large quantity and on everything– edible or not. I spent a week or so looking for salad dressing and never found any. I asked my roommate about this and her response was essentially – “why the hell would we use dressing when the olive oil is so good?” Salad dressing mystery solved. Spaniards typically just use oil, vinegar, and salt. If you’re into the flavor at all – you can buy really fancy brands here for less than a fifth of what you might pay in the US. Take advantage of the good stuff while it’s cheap 🙂

The most glaring difference in Spanish and US diets is a lack of preserved or sugary foods. No sugary cereals, energy bars, granola mixes, (some chocolate but not much), fruity juice drinks, Nutella, or peanut butter. If there is soda, there are only a few options. Same goes for candy bars– usually a limited selection of 3-5 bars. Luckily, I never ate much frozen food in the US but this is also pretty limited in Spain.

Spain doesn’t have the same to-go culture that the US does so you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything premade. I promise, you never realize how many sugary options there are in the US until you leave. To compensate for this huge aspect of my diet that suddenly went missing, I ended up preparing food a lot more. Instead of bringing a premade snack to the library, I had to go home and cut some fruit and put it with yogurt. Instead of grabbing an energy bar for breakfast, I had to sit down with a bowl of cereal. This, I would say was one of the most difficult aspects of my transition to Spain. Even as I write this blog post – four months into my stay– my mouth is watering for those trader joes snack mixes with chocolaty-peanut butter chips and dried fruit that I love so much.

DAIRY. Brace yourselves Wisconsinites– you aren’t in Kansas anymore. I found that diary-based food culture is completely missing here. There is good cheese, but Midwesterners are not going to find the thick gravies and cream sauces that our mothers lovingly cooked for us growing up anywhere in Spain. Dairy is super pasteurized and typically sold unrefrigerated. I don’t want to know why the expiration dates are six months after purchase, but I assume the transition between cow and unrefrigerated cardboard box isn’t exactly direct. After a bit of a shock, this really wasn’t bad for me. I didn’t drink milk straight in the US, and I found Spanish milk to be palatable for cooking. If you don’t think about it too much, it’s actually nice to never fight the calendar on a gallon of milk that is almost bad.

There is a second circle of Spanish milk hell which is called “sin lactosa” which is unrefrigerated milk without lactose. This stuff is marketed as “easy to digest” and people without lactose intolerance WILLINGLY buy this stuff without medical necessity here. There are many pressing humanitarian aid projects around the world, but I think one of them should be helping Spaniards understand how good fresh cream tastes.

Finally, take advantage of a few fresh baguettes if you go to Europe: please. Even at an ALDI, which is considered a cheaper grocery store with nothing fancy– you can find warm and fresh baguettes. WARM, my friends. Warm freshly baked baguettes. I will restate my plea– please eat some.

Wherever you go, try new stuff and try to figure out what’s good. You will miss American food a bit, but your opportunity to see how another culture eats through its food is never better than when you’re travelling. In fact, I believe understanding a culture in general has a lot to do with understanding its food, so it’s important that you try things. Put on a few pounds if you must 🙂