It wasn't until I moved overseas that I started to expand my culinary horizons both in terms of what I ate, and how I cooked. It was in those times of deprivation and alienation from my familiar American food that I was forced to learn things like how to bake an authentic birthday cake, how to make tortillas from scratch, or refried beans, how to make Sunday morning pancakes without a mix, and how to make yogurt. And I really started to love what I called "experimental cooking." Basically, this meant cooking with local ingredients and without a recipe. Sometimes the experiments didn't work out that well, but more often than not, I was satisfied with the result. More than satisfied. I began to trust my intuition, and my taste, and realized that I had some skill in this area, and more importantly, that I really, really loved to cook.
So this might all seem a little backwards. I learned to bake the best chocolate chip cookies while living in places where vanilla extract and brown sugar are not generally available at the grocery store. I stocked up on a few key ingredients while visiting the US, and I "perfected" my recipes for cinnamon rolls, pecan pie, carrot cake, and apple pie by experimenting in kitchens in Africa, Asia, and Europe. I also incorporated a lot of local dishes and flavors into my cooking, adding Japanese Okonomiyaki, Thai Pad Kra Pao, and Kyrgyz Plov, for example, to my regular rotation. It's all been a very positive culinary journey, and one that seems to have endless possibilities for further refinement and discovery. Maybe that's why I love cooking so much? One never ceases to learn.
Living overseas has also meant that I needed to learn how to make some of my favorite foods in an environment that may be hostile to such endeavors, e.g. Mexican restaurants are either non-existent or a total waste of time, hummus is a concept that no one has ever heard of, and the local baked goods are of the dry and/or overly sweet variety... and those are just a few examples. So in this post I have gathered together some of my best tips for how to approach the challenges of expat cooking in Germany. It includes a list of key places to source hard to find ingredients, what to bring from home, good German ingredient substitutes, and even a list of those foods you really ought to just learn to make from scratch.
So here we go, my best cooking tips for expats in Germany!
Where to source ingredients:
TRICK #1: Shop the ethnic markets – e.g. Asian, Middle Eastern, Turkish
Items I regularly get at the Asian market:
Dried black beans
All manner of awesome Asian ingredients: soy sauce, chili sauce, miso, sesame seeds, etc.
TRICK #2: Some things are found at the pharmacy
Germans may consider certain items more of a "medicine" than a "food", including:
Cream of Tartar
TRICK #3: When all else fails, go to the gourmet department store:
It may be more expensive, but sometimes it's worth it:
TRICK #4: Just bring it from home
Sometimes I fill up a suitcase when I am home in the U.S., if only because many ingredients are a lot cheaper there:
Corn syrup (if you plan on making pecan pie at the holidays)
Whole grains that can be bought in bulk- like farro, quinoa
Peanut butter and other nut butters
Chipotle in adobo sauce
TRICK #5: Befriend someone with access to a military commissary
This is particularly good around the holidays:
Canned green beans
Canned cranberry sauce
Cooking tips and substitutes for common ingredients:
The first most important thing is to buy a scale – most recipes outside the U.S. are in metric measurements.
Second, recipes requiring canned ingredients can be made (and are often better!) with fresh or dried ingredients, including:
Third, the following substitutes can be made for typical American ingredients, with little problem:
Chocolate bars chopped up for chocolate chips
Currants for cranberries
Dairy – e.g. mixture of crème fraiche and milk for half and half, Frisch Käse for cream cheese
Cheeses – gouda or emmental instead of cheddar
Brown sugar is sugar + molasses
Which foods to learn to make from scratch:
There are certain "prepared" foods that are often eaten in the U.S., but are just not of the same standard or type in Germany, and are therefore deserving of the time and energy invested into learning to make them from scratch. Some of the items on my "must be from scratch" list include:
Mexican food – refried beans, salsa, guacamole, enchilada sauce, etc.
Well, that's a good start on these tips! There may have to be a Part 2 as I begin to think about all the other things I have learned cooking as an expat. But for now, this shall suffice. Until then, head out to the Asian Market and see what they have to offer.