The Expat Life
The expat life can be a difficult one. The language barriers, home sickness, lack of friends, no family, strange rules, and cultural differences can make for challenging days, weeks, or months. It's particularly difficult around the holidays in November and December (when making a turkey and a pumpkin pie is a chore). Fortunately, technology helps with some of this. One of the ways I stay grounded and true to my American self is through cooking.
Switzerland is not a foodie's paradise. In fact, it can be down right frustrating. The lack of variety in their own food, and availability of seemingly basic ingredients like brown sugar and vanilla extract, leave me scouring the Internet for homemade versions or substitutions. The cost of items, such as meat ($80 for a 2 lb. beef roast, $10/lb. for ground beef, $12/lb. for chicken breast), has me second guessing whether a recipe is actually worth making. Fruits and vegetables are extremely seasonal; I have a hard time finding green onions and celery right now (fall) and don't even think about trying to find fresh berries after August. I do the best I can with what I have. I'm lucky to have family and friends who will send me brown sugar and vanilla, along with other things we may want and not necessarily need.
Remember learning the metric system in school and thinking you'll never need to know it? Do you know how many milliliters is in 5 dL? Then there are the conversions between the two systems...250 mL is how many cups? Do you know how many grams there are in pound? It all gets learned quickly enough. My kitchen scale is my BFF. Butter comes in 250 gram blocks. Two sticks of butter (1 C) is 226 grams, to give you an idea; one tablespoon is 14 grams. Unless it's a non-U.S. recipe, butter is pretty much the only thing I have to weigh. I still have my measuring spoons and cups from the States, which is very helpful. The oven is in Celsius, of course. Once you convert temperatures enough times, it becomes automatic.
The big meal of the day in Switzerland is lunch time. It's often the only hot meal of the day, as well. The Swiss may or may not eat breakfast before work/school, but they definitely eat during "snüni", the nine o'clock hour break time. This is when the children have snack at school as well. This might consist of bread, yogurt, or a sandwich with a coffee. But, do not dare send a banana to school for your child's snack. It's considered unhealthy. Yep, a hunk of bread with cheese is ok, but not a banana! <deep breath> As I said, lunch is the big meal. My husband has often said when he asks for smaller portions in the company restaurant, he gets stared at like he has three heads. I'm not sure how the Swiss do it, I'd be passed out at my desk in a coma by 2 p.m. So if the big lunch isn't enough, then there is "sveiri"--the four o'clock break time. That is usually something sweet plus a coffee. For dinner, some Swiss don't really eat at all. Those that do, have small meals--a salad, sliced meats with cheese (probably with bread), maybe a grilled sausage. We have not converted to this way of eating!
Even after nearly four years of being here, I still creep on people's shopping carts at the grocery store. I'm fascinated with their eating habits! I always see fresh bread. Always. And yogurt. I see tons of fresh vegetables, in particular, leeks. Sliced/cured meats are common, along with pasta and risotto. These people put safron in everything! They consider BBQ to be salsa (?), and anything extra large is "American" sized. Nice, huh? Desserts consist of fruit or chocolate tortes. They would never eat a cupcake or multilayerd cake covered in frosting. Unless it's a birthday cake from the bakery, in which case, they put booze in the cake. We learned that the hard way! I'm assuming it's to keep the cake moist, because much of their cakes and packaged breads, i.e. hamburger buns, are quite dry. Fried foods, other than french fries, forget about it! There is not much of a tolerance for hot spices and curries are about as international as they get.
I never dreamed there would be things from the States to eat or drink that I'd miss so much. The phrase, "you don't know what you got until it's gone", definitely rings true. I'd give my left arm for a Payday bar, a Boston Creme donut with a "medium iced coffee, regular" from Dunkin Donuts, chicken wings, an Arby's Beef-n-Cheddar sandwich, good Chinese take-out, BBQ ribs, pot roast, real maple syrup, Miracle Whip, French's Fried Onions, condensed soup, ranch dressing, tangy sour cream, Lucky Charms, corn dogs, fair french fries (ok, pretty much anything fried)...I could keep going.
Of course, the flip side is, we are so close to and have enjoyed the food and wine that Italy has to offer, along with German sausages, Austrian schnitzel and strudels, Swiss Gschnätzlets and Älpler Magrone, and other dishes from France, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Turkey. These countries have some amazing cuisine! I'm always looking forward to where we will head next. Plus, there is no chance of there being a shortage of the best chocolate in the world, fondue anytime (although after Valentine's day it's a faux pa until October), and the best dairy products on the planet. Even the cheap yogurt in this country is amazing--velvety smooth and so creamy!
Below are some recipes that have helped me feel not so far away. They are copycat versions or close substitutes to things found in the States. Hopefully, other expats have access to ingredients that can help them recreate their favorite dishes they might be missing from home. I have several things in the pipeline and I will keep the list updated!