When childhood memories are not enough: how expatriation can change your palate

Can you stop loving the smells and tastes of your childhood? Can you stop losing yourself in sensorial memories just because a certain flavor suddenly seems outdated? Would we have the Recherche‘s seven volumes, had Marcel Proust been an expat?

It might be a consequence of cutting the cord but I don’t seem to enjoy my mother’s food anymore. It’s been a slow process completed over the past years but this time I can say it loud: I don’t like it. It looks and tastes exactly the same as 20 years ago but it’s not palatable anymore. And it’s not her fault: it’s me.

For years I travelled looking for that certain flavor: a well-known, reassuring taste that would make me feel at home. As a tween language student in England, I would walk miles to find a jar of Nutella (In 1990, I assure you, globalisation didn’t exist yet. You couldn’t find anything anywhere, apart from McDonalds) and eat it slowly, spoon by spoon, every time I felt homesick (and needed to stock up on calories, since I couldn’t stomach the noodles with ketchup we were presented with everyday at the school’s canteen).

250px-Nutella-1

I went to Vietnam with a secret stash of whole crackers I didn’t dare to show my travel companions. I ended up eating fried noodles with snake but before getting there, I ate several packets of those Italian crackers in my bed at night.

the crackers I devoured at night while adjusting to south-east asian food

the crackers I devoured at night while adjusting to south-east asian food

I literally rushed into a McDonalds restaurant in Casablanca after two weeks of couscous, stuffed pigeons and a cumin overdose. It wasn’t strictly childhood food but it was utterly familiar and took away the dizziness as soon as the burger reached my blood flow.

It's McDonalds but it tasted like home

It’s just McDonalds but it tasted sooo familiar

There’s nothing extraordinary in this, it’s part of the Italian DNA. I read somewhere that Italians are the only people of the world that declare with an astounding majority (something like 80%) to prefer their national food to any other alternative. They might be well-traveled and open minded, they might have walked the desert or climbed the Everest but when it comes to what they put in their mouth they really are all the same: can’t go very long without a dose of prosciutto, bresaola, culatello or their daily fix of expresso.

Unless you close yourself into a fellow nationals bubble, though, you will be exposed to different tastes and smells at some point. For certain countries, with a colonial history or an history of immigration, it’s become natural. New Yorkers are familiar with Pastrami, Pretzels and anything Italian as Londoners consider Chicken Tikka Masala a national recipe. For countries who built their reputation on their cuisine, as Italy and France, it’s less obvious.

I discovered the virtues of cilantro and cardamom as an adult but I couldn’t go long without them now. I learned to put on the same plate meat and vegetables and some carbs after getting married (in Italy you eat meat alone, then veggies alone and carbs always come first) and I took ideas here and there, from friends and magazines and books coming from all over the world. My taste has opened up and my childhood food, simply, seems me dull and colorless now. I tried to introduce my mother to the wonders of toasted seeds in salads, oriental dressing and avocado but it doesn’t work. It can’t. Food is the greatest Italian taboo. We don’t discuss heritage. The kitchen is off-limits to me during holidays and I can feel the tension building up every time I totter around opening jars and giving a piece of my mind on the abuse of tomato sauce.

Ottolenghi, the perfect example of Italian food with a middle-eastern, international twist

Ottolenghi, the perfect example of Italian food with a middle-eastern, international twist

What’s your favorite childhood food? How expatriation modified your palate? What particular flavor would you look for when struck by homesickness?

9 comments

  1. Thanks for the link, I enjoyed reading it. I initially hated the food cramming as well but I am now so used to it that I get very nervous when I find my three meatballs sitting all alone while the salad is waiting, all ready, in a corner. aaaaargh!

  2. My mother is the finest cook on the planet and all my childhood memories are linked to her lasagna, tortellini, roasts and the like. Yes, it’s the same recipes but they are so perfect that it’s impossible not to love them like the first day. All my friends covet invitations to my mother’s table, Italian and foreign alike. Having said that, extensive travels and living in many places has obviously nurtured my taste buds and I don’t think I could ever go back to just the food of my youth. I resent all the Italians who come to visit and expect to eat the same way they would at home and always sigh and end every meal with “Ma e’ meglio da noi”. No, it’s not. It’s different. And most other cuisines are better outside of Italy. Chinese restaurants in Italy are still cringeworthy. Same for most Indians or Mexicans. Now that my mom comes to visit me here and I cook just as much as her, she likes to watch me experiment with ingredients she is not familiar with. Not everything is enthusiastically embraced but she is proud of very many discoveries. But I still love Nutella – first loves are never forgotten!

  3. I find that the cuisine of my childhood, especially winter foods, can seem too heavy, but my mom tends to be open to trying new things – unless they are spicy!

    1. We grew up with a chilli that my father made that – when compared with standard prairie Canadian fare – was quite spicy. There is a stereotype that all Indian food is spicy – not at all. In fact, I enjoy with gusto foods far spicier than my partner can handle and I’ve discovered Anglo-Indian cuisine is exceptionally flavourful without being spicy. 😉

  4. I’ve been abroad for three years but still can’t get used to the heaviness of Eastern European food. And like you and Nutella, I am a classic American peanut butter craver even though it’s outrageously expensive abroad.

  5. When I was a child, we would buy little tubs of Nutella that came with a tiny spoon and we would eat them on the way home from school – this was in England in the 1980s, I never realised it was hard to get! I’m always amazed how much the Italians revere their food over all other cuisines. Someone told me recently that Italians visiting a restaurant like to eat exactly the same food as they would at home, which is totally different to most English people who want to try something new when they eat out!

    1. Yes! It s exactly like that. I cant imagine where this lack of curiosity comes from but it has certainly something to do with the lack of colonies and the defense of some sort of common (culinary) ground in a country dominated by foreign powers for centuries. Who knows!

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