First of all, welcome to my Cairo Kitchen! It is challenging enough to live a somewhat “normal” daily life in Egypt but now it’s time to take a look at one of my greatest challenges in Egypt.
And this is one that doesn’t require me even to step outside my front door… All I have to do is step into my own kitchen.
For anyone who loves food, it is easy for us to idealize the food we remember from our childhood. For me, this includes product of many hours sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her cook anything from made-from-scratch biscuits & gravy to pipin’ hot skillet cornbread to melt-in-your-mouth cooked apples. She made everything look easy.
And it wasn’t just my grandma who made great food. Making homemade chocolate chip cookies was almost a weekly ritual in our house growing up. And every Christmas we always made a big batch of soft sugar cookies to the point where it wasn’t Christmas without them.
I have loved to cook for years, even though I took a hiatus from cooking in college (something about years of eating dorm cafeteria food that keeps that cooking gene lying dormant) and in the years following it just wasn’t worth the effort most of the time to cook meals for one person.
And then I moved to Egypt, and food took on a whole new meaning.
Since moving abroad 5 years ago, I have realized that my one great connection with home (that is, the States) is food. Yes, I love the people and the places, but cooking food like I remember from back home is one way for me to keep a part of that with me.
However, cooking abroad isn’t always the easiest thing to do. But it’s also not nearly as hard as you might think it is.
For me, the key to successful cooking abroad was all about being prepared. I was lucky in that when I moved to Egypt to get married and to live permanently abroad, it was the second time I had lived in Egypt.
So I already had an idea of what was available in Egypt…and what wasn’t.
But I know that in many cases one might not be familiar with the country he or she is moving to and may not even know anyone who lives there. In fact, you may move to a country where you’re not sure about anything, like where you’re living or where you’re working, much less to worry about what kind of food you’re going to cook once you get there.
So let me share a basic list of the kinds of things I brought with me when I moved abroad:
Cookbooks. I brought my favorite all-purpose cookbooks with me to Egypt: Better Homes & Gardens and Betty Crocker. Every time I go home to the States, I keep planning to bring more cookbooks back with me. But even though I have only two, I must say that these 2 basic cookbooks have served me well these past 5 years in Egypt.
Spices. I brought a small startup supply of spices with me from the States. This list included things like basil, oregano, Italian seasoning, nutmeg, thyme, cloves, cinnamon, chili powder, etc. It was hard to remember exactly what was available in Egypt, but I wanted to be sure that I had everything I needed to make all of my favorite American dishes.
Baking essentials. My baking stuff is sacred. On any given day I have all the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies in my kitchen. And if you like to bake, it’s vital that you bring your own baking stuff when you move abroad. I brought things like baking powder, baking soda, cream of tartar, food coloring, sprinkles, vanilla & almond extracts, poppy seeds, etc. Sometimes local substitutes are available, but these require some experimentation before they can replace old favorites.
Specialty cooking/baking tools. I can’t tell you what to bring or what not to bring, because it really depends on where you’re going. In all honesty most of your basic pots and pans will most likely be available in various sizes anywhere around the world. However, some things may be either unavailable or take some time to find.
For example, I eventually found muffin pans here in Egypt, but I had already brought one with me from KY. Other items I have brought from the States include: measuring cups (liquids and solids), measuring spoons, spatulas, a Springform pan, cake pans, a pie plate, hot pads, a rolling pin, and cookie cutters.
It can be really easy to forget what ingredients we need to cook the food we love…or at least we might if we don’t actually sit down and plan it out.
I challenge you on any given day (without planning in advance) to go to the store and buy just the things you need for exactly 1 meal, without making a list first.
Hard isn’t it?
My husband doesn’t like it when I go to the store without a list.
The problem with trying to do this when you live abroad is that sometimes what was available last week or last month has now been stuck in customs for the past few weeks or months so it is no longer available in stores.
So basically I get in the habit of stocking up on things when I DO find them in the stores here. And if I can, I stock up on things not readily available in Egypt when I go back to the States. Granted my decisions on what things to bring back with me from the States are based on several criteria such as weight, scarcity in Egypt, and overall importance in my kitchen. There are some exceptions, especially when it comes to holiday cooking and baking (holiday = Thanksgiving and Christmas).
I have to say that overall I think I can live quite happily cooking in my kitchen in Egypt for years to come. It sometimes means that I have to make things the hard way (as in “made from scratch” kind of hard) or have to get creative with my substitutions and recipe adaptations, but the goal in mind is always the same.
Good food that reminds me of home.
Because no matter where I am, there is nothing like biting into a warm chocolate chip cookie straight out of the oven or diving into a helping of homemade macaroni & cheese that can make all my troubles go away.
About the author: Erin Owen writes for and maintains Egypt Ramblings – a blog about expat life in Egypt where she lives with her husband and son.