How Being an Expatriate Can Improve Your Culinary Skills

I miss peanut butter. This is the most common food question for many Americans who come to Spain: Where can I get my hands on some good old American-style peanut butter? Luckily, if you’re in Madrid, the answer is easy. Actually, most towns that have a Carrefour or Mercadona will have peanut butter. (Now whether it’s any good is up to you to decide.)

But there are many other foods we crave. As good as Spanish food is, I know I have a list of things I like to eat when I get home. I crave spice, Ranch dressing, cottage cheese, and mainly anything from Trader Joe’s. (Someone please bring a bottle of their Champagne Pear salad dressing, stat. Oh—and some trail mix.)

So how have all these cravings made me a better cook? Easy—necessity is the mother of invention. Or so they say.

What can the American expat make in Spain instead of traipsing from Taste of America to Al Campo to El Corte Inglés?

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Fusión Cultural: An American’s Journey through a Spanish Kitchen and Back

What is about food that can make one so homesick? Tomato soup and grilled cheese will always make me think of cold winter nights in Indiana. Corn on the cob elicits feelings of nostalgia for backyard barbecues and Fourth-of-July celebrations. And a tomato brings back memories of the family garden: eating it whole, warm and juicy from the earth. Food is family, food is culture, food is home.

Melanie Glover knows this quite well, having married a Spaniard, moved to the US, and subsequently learned to cook her husband’s favorite foods from home. He missed home, and thus she brought a little bit of his childhood to their new home by learning to make paella and ensaladilla rusa and beef soup. In her new ebook, Fusión Cultural: An American’s Journey through a Spanish Kitchen and Back (only $3.99 on Amazon!), she details this process—and provides a few recipes along the way.

FUSION CULTURAL

Having also married a Spaniard, I identified quite well with her journey: from not knowing much about Spanish food all the way to being quite enthusiastic about it! I came to Spain loving cooking and tomatoes, unlike Melanie, but I too had to learn to like new things. And I did! I now love olives, merluza (hake), and hearty red wine.

Melanie was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me about her book. Take a look!

Barcelona Cooking School

Melanie at the Barcelona Cooking School in Barcelona, Spain

Why did you first visit Spain?

I first visited Spain in 2005 as part of a study-abroad program through my university. I stayed for three months and knew I had to return. I left at a point that summer in which I felt I was at the peak of learning, and I desired that learning to continue. I returned to Spain for a month after I graduated from college in May–June 2006, at which time I met my Spanish husband, Álvaro!

Kaley: Sounds like we had a similar experience!

What were you first impressions of Spanish food (likes, dislikes, curiosities)?

When I first visited Spain, the food really didn’t catch my attention. I remember having a hard time getting adjusted to the differences in food, actually. My señora (the woman to whose home I was assigned to live for three months) promised that manzanilla [chamomile] tea would help my restless stomach, and it did for a time. But when I started dating Álvaro, he and his family opened my eyes to the wonderful Spanish gastronomy. Being from Extremadura, they taught me all about embutidos. I’m not sure how I lived without cured Spanish ham and cheese before then!

As for curiosities, I had always wondered about octopus before I tried it in 2009. But I didn’t like it because of the texture. [K: Me neither.] I have liked rabo de toro [oxtail] but disliked pigs feet—too chewy!

How did you meet your husband and what was your first meal together?

I met my husband in 2006 on a bus traveling from Madrid to Cáceres, his birth city. We were seated next to each other. He offered me a mint, we struck up conversation, and we spoke the entire four-hour bus ride! We kept in touch, and we started dating when I went back to Madrid in 2006–2007 to study. We married in 2009, and we’ve been living in Dallas, Texas, since 2010.

As I describe in the book, our first real meal together was at his apartment in Madrid in 2006 when he prepared baked fish and canapés de salmón. It was so delicious that it completely changed my mind about fish.

What are his favorite Spanish foods? What are his favorite American foods?

Álvaro’s favorite Spanish foods:

  1. Jamón ibérico de bellota [Iberian ham made from pigs that only eat acorns during the last months of their lives] 
  2. Lomo ibérico [Iberian cured pork loin]
  3. Queso de oveja curado [Cured sheep’s-milk cheese]
  4. Mejillones en escabeche [Pickled mussels]
  5. Langostinos a la plancha [Grilled prawns]
  6. Tortilla de patata [Spanish potato omelet]

Álvaro’s favorite American foods:

  1. Hamburgers
  2. Barbeque anything (ribs, brisket, smoked turkey, sausage, etc.)
  3. Tex-Mex and Mexican

What foods do you miss most when you are in the US?

I miss los ibéricos like crazy!

Besides your mother-in-law, how else did you learn to cook Spanish foods?

Green beans with ham and potatoes

A recipe in the book, green beans with ham and potatoes

Since meeting my husband and learning about the important of food to him, I have made it a point to learn more about cooking—but especially Spanish foods. I have felt an obligation to keep him well and healthy since he’s left Spain for me. I knew the immigration process was going to be a difficult one because of the cultural differences between the US and Spain, but I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be in the realm of food. I have purchased numerous recipe books (send me an email for recommendations!); I’ve asked my Spanish-language teachers to focus on culinary topics during classes; and I’ve taken numerous cooking courses both in Spain and the US to learn more about Spanish cuisine. I’m not an expert, but they’ve all helped tremendously.

What kitchen tools are necessary for cooking Spanish food?

  1. Chef’s knife for chopping (garlic, onion, etc.)
  2. Large, shallow pan for making sauces
  3. Peeler

Lemon peeler

Why do you think food helps your husband feel connected to home?

Almond chicken

Another recipe, almond chicken

Food is everything to Álvaro. It makes him nostalgic for a place, time, location, people, etc. Food brings back memories that allow him to recall the good times he has had in various places with people he loves. These memories are important for coping with living so far away from family and friends with whom he’s shared wonderful meals all of his life.

If you had to live in Spain, which foods would help you feel connected to the US?

I think I would miss pork or beef roasts with vegetables and potatoes because we ate a lot of these growing up. So I think I’d need to invest in some type of crockpot to replicate these dishes in Spain because that’s what my mother used here. I would also probably eat a lot more hamburgers and steaks to remind me of all of the grilling my family did while growing up in Michigan.

Thank you, Melanie, for giving me the chance to interview you. I love your book, and I’m sure I’ll be replicating some recipes soon!

Does food have the ability to make you homesick or nostalgic? Which foods would when you are away?

11 Things I Would Never Buy and 8 Things I Would at Taste of America

Whenever I’m asked about my hobbies, I always say cooking (and reading). I love trying new recipes, cuisines, and tastes. Luckily for me, I have a husband who’s willing to try almost anything (except spicy—he’s not into that). There’s nothing better than mastering a dish, especially when your husband’s from another country and you have finally gotten your tortilla de patatas just right.

The problem about cooking (and eating!) in another country is that sometimes you can’t find what you want. There are certain ingredients that aren’t sold here, at least in your neighborhood supermarket. When I was living in smaller towns—Toledo (2008), Salamanca (2009–2010), or Zamora (2011, 2012)—I noticed this a lot.

I understand the desire for a store that’s just like back home. You know, Trader Joe’s would be nice sometimes. But sometimes I see the products advertised at Taste of America, and I have to admit I would never buy some of those things. Some I would, though. But which ones?

Things I Would Never Buy

Peanut butter in the jar

  1. Peanut butter. Okay, if you don’t have a food processor, I would buy this. However, I do have my nice little food processor, and making your own nut butter couldn’t be easier. The only downside is the clean up.
  2. Mixes. Make your own cake or brownies. Way cheaper, and healthier (not so many chemicals!).
  3. Frosting. Likewise, it’s way too easy to make your own frosting. I have my favorite frosting recipe, and it is amazing! You don’t have to use powdered sugar! Popcorn popped on a white background
  4. Popcorn. There is popcorn here; enough said.
  5. Vegetable dip mix. This is easy enough to do it yourself. I like this recipe, with Greek yogurt and a bunch of spices you already have in your cabinet.
  6. Baking soda and corn starch. Why buy these when they already exist over here, and for a much cheaper price? Look for bicarbonato (baking soda) and maizena (corn starch).
  7. Strawberry syrup. Because no. Because it’s gross? Because I once vomited after eating this.
  8. Guacamole mix. Guys, making great guacamole is not difficult. The only semi-difficult part might be finding cilantro, but I’ve seen it in nearby fruterías, so don’t despair. Pop-Tarts
  9. Pop Tarts. Who knew that one could actually purchase this for the low, low price of €5.60 ($7.28)? These breakfast delicacies bring me back to my middle-school days, when they were my dad’s daily breakfast.
  10. Marshmallows. I don’t have anything against them, and I get why you’d want to buy them, but marshmallows just aren’t my thing.
  11. Yeast. Yes, thank you I would like to pay 10x more yeast!

Things I Would Totally Buy

Pretzels

  1. Pretzels. Yeah, I’ve seen them here, but—to be frank—they suck. I would love to get my hands on some of these pretzels, most notably the Snyder’s Sourdough Hard Pretzels, although the nearly €4 ($5.20) price tag kind of puts me off.
  2. Cheez-Its. These sorts of tasty, cheesy crackers can’t really be found here. The cracker culture is really lacking. I have actually made my own before, and it’s not that difficult, just time consuming, but I think I’d rather do it myself than pay €6.35 for one box!
  3. Maple syrup. Worth it. I do think there are some specialty Spanish shops that will sell it, but the good stuff (a.k.a. not Aunt Jemima’s) is worth forking over some hard-earned cash.
  4. Some cereals. I am a little bit ashamed to admit that I saw this box of Cap’n Crunch and suddenly had the urge to grab a huge bowl of it. Peanut butter, regular … come back to me! Sriracha
  5. Sriracha. I would buy this amazing sauce. Mario might not touch it, but this sauce is so versatile. You can use it on shrimp, in a Bloody Mary, cornbread muffins, on popcorn, in dips … the list goes on and on. But I don’t see this listed at Taste of America. Too bad!
  6. Blow pops. I have this weird love for all things lollipop. Yeah, I’d buy ’em!
  7. Reese’s. There’s nothing like the combination of peanut butter and chocolate. Although I do make my own desserts that combine the two, Reese’s satisfies a childhood craving. Ranch Dressing
  8. Ranch dressing. Ranch dressing is a gift given to man; we must not waste it.

Which products would you buy?

Things I Cannot Wait to Eat

Cottage Cheese

      • Cottage cheese. Oh me oh my. I used to hate this food. Do not ask me what I was thinking; I clearly wasn’t. But there’s something about the salty, savory deliciousness of it that I just can’t get enough of. It’s versatile too – you can use it with sweet or savory dishes. In fact, all these things go well with cottage cheese: tomatoes, pineapple, crackers, all and sundry vegetables, salad, bread, plain. You get the picture.

HummusSource

      • Hummus. Okay, I suppose I could make my own, but that would involve buying a jar of tahini (for which I do not have space) and having a better blender. Right now I have a stick blender, otherwise known as an immersion blender, which really just doesn’t cut it.

Chex Mix

      • All things Chex Mix. Honey Nut Chex Mix is like my crack.

Frozen Yogurt

      • Frozen tangy yogurt. I would give a whole lot for the ability to buy my own frozen tangy (NOT vanilla!) yogurt. Trader Joe’s stocks some of the best.
      • Frozen mangoes. I love them like nothing else. I don’t eat them when they are as hard as a rock, just not thawed and slimy.

Carrots

      • Baby carrots. They’re just so nice to munch on sometimes, ya know?

PBSource

      • Natural peanut butter. The grind your own kind. I’d also take this food processor so I could make my own. Just sayin’.

Dill Pickles

      • Dill pickles, the kind you buy in the refrigerated section. Crispy, vinegary goodness at its best.
      • Diet Orange Sunkist. Mmmmmm fake sugar.
      • Any and all Mexican food. I have this huge craving for salsa and chips, and wouldn’t mind having a whole basket to myself at Little Mexico.

Cereal

      • The cereal aisle. Yes, I will eat it all: Cinnamon Life, Peanut Butter Puffins, Honey Nut Chex (there I go again with that honey nut shiz), Apple Cinnamon Cheerios.

Salad Dressing

      • Salad dressing. We just do it right in the U.S. I would go for some Trader Joe’s Spicy Peanut Vinagrette right about now. Or some Champagne Pear goodness.

Kashi

  • Kashi Crackers. Wheat Thins. Triscuits. Basically any kind of cracker and I’m all over it. (I’m sure some jokes could be made right about now. Bring ’em on!)

I’ve come to the conclusion that I would just like to go to Trader Joe’s and eat the entire store, wine included. Yes? Yes. Countdown: 100 days.