Joanna Masters-Maggs, our resident Food Gossip, is back with her column for like-minded food gossips.
This month: The war of foodie one-upmanship, or “Who’s travelled the most?”
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“I’m doing it the Malaysian way” said my friend with satisfaction as she poured her too hot tea from one cup to another and back again to cool it.
It was my cue to ask “How do you mean?” thus allowing her to launch into (yet another) story of how things are done in some place or other she had visited.
It was hot, I was grumpy, and my friend’s tone was just a touch too self-satisfied.
The pause grew as I busied myself with milk and sugar. It extended into a grim silence as I resolutely avoided asking. Not generous of me, I know, but in my defense I have never pretended to be Pollyanna, and sometimes those “we found this marvelous place just off the beaten track” stories just get on your nerves.
It would be another 5 years before I lived in Malaysia and discovered Teh Tarik for myself. The pouring trick was not to do with cooling, but with the mixing and frothing of a sort of tea made with condensed milk. An environmentally friendly cuppotino, I suppose.
Look where I’ve been — and you have not!
All expats have probably found themselves on one side or another, or both, of this conversation. Expats and serious travellers are all engaged in an endless war of covert operations. We maneuver for superiority by exposing snippets of our discoveries and being impressed, or not, by those of others. We certainly don’t like to admit to this unedifying trait of One-upmanship, preferring instead to see ourselves as laid back free spirits and survivors of alien situations. Yet, the truth is, it is our Achilles heel.
Expat tales of unusual foods, which hopefully Waitrose will not discover before we get home, allow us to say “look where I’ve been, and you have not”. While appearing to share generously of our experience, we want to show what we know and what those who stayed at home do not.
Calling bluff on Bi Bim Bap
“You’ll never go hungry in a Korean restaurant if you can just remember to ask for Bi Bim Bap. After all, who could forget a word like Bi Bim Bap?”
My friend’s hands spread out, palms up. Her shoulders and eyebrows rose in perfect synchronicity. The gesture suggested that not only was it impossible to forget such a word once heard, but that not knowing about Bi Bim Bap was unimaginable in itself. We had reached the point that expats will recognise from the cold war of One-upmanship.
I faced a difficult choice. Was I going to expose my lack of knowledge over “Bi Bim Bap” and lose a little position in the “most well travelled”, or was I going to take the dangerous but potentially game-winning risk of pretending that I knew what it was and indeed had been taught to produce one by a well-known Korean chef whom I had just happened to bump into?
The advantage of the first approach is the warm glow of generosity of giving another a moment to shine. That and the fact you might actually learn something interesting. The second approach means you avoid having to listen to a long-winded boast.
Does she actually think she invented the Bi Bim Bap? you mutter darkly to yourself.
Of course, in not asking, you remain in frustrating ignorance, especially if you forget to Google it upon returning home. More seriously, you risk exposure as a fraud. That is enough to chill the heart.
You might be thinking that the example of Bi Bim Bap was a little repetitive, following so quickly as it does on the heels of Teh Tarek. I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the opportunity to show off – again. As I say, it is a hazard of being an expat with an unfortunate interest in food.
Expats 1, Tourists 0
Hari Raya Aidilfitri: outlying suburb of KL far from the Tourist Zone. These stalls offer traditional foods for to locals and a wealth of boasting opportunities for the lucky expat passerby.
Expats like to think that living overseas gives you a window on a world that tourists or those who remain at home will never see. Tourists will never have to face the problems of daily life in a strange language or culture. They will never have to get the electricity turned on, find a plumber, or do the weekly family shop. A tourist’s world in many respects doesn’t differ hugely from place to place. Pre-booked hotels, transport from airports, organized trips on air-conditioned buses. Even backpackers travels follow a familiar path.
The wonderful Nasi Lemak (coconut rice to you) of a tourist hotel was doubtless an experience, just not the same as the hawker stall the expat discovers in the backstreet to which they have been directed to find a furniture repair store.
That, we believe is the uniqueness of living overseas.
Expats trump tourists.
How naughtily satisfying. One-upmanship indeed.
A Tower of Babel for the food industry
As the globalization of food companies and supermarkets continues to homogenise world food experiences, the expats’ territory is further threatened. The same products appear the world over and are marketed similarly in the name of brand identity.
Take the confectionary market. An advert for Maynards Sour Patch Kids is currently airing on UK television. It has been voiced over in an American accent and uses American vocabulary such as “soda”. It upsets me. Maynards was bought by Cadbury, which in turn was bought by American Kraft, but why did a company with a uniquely English Quaker social and economic philosophy have to be marketed in England in much the same way as it is probably marketed in America? How could this happen to the company of a man who had invented the wine gum to help wean the impoverished working class off the demon drink?
Sour Patch Kids should be sold in America to American kids. Maynards should be selling wine gums to English kids, using an English accent. Kids should be allowed the thrill of receiving a unique item from granny or auntie when she returns from her travels. They should be asking friends visiting those countries to “bring us back a packet”. They should be learning at an early age the delicate game of Travellers’ One-upmanship.
The joy unbounded of discovering a packet of a long remembered treat is equal to the joy of a pig that unearths a truffle. These are the experiences of travel and expatness that must not be lost. They will be lost, mark my words, if Haribo takes over the world as it threatens to do so, with their gummy bears and fizzy cola. Brands unique to different countries must be guarded jealously, much as France guards the name “champagne”. Mexican Chili sweets, English Trebor mints and American Peanut Butter Cups can then keep their allure and remain in production. The thrill of the chase and the discovery of the new should not be lost. A world of confectionary should there for us all.
Expat living: A licence to boast
Expats have a sneaky feeling that knowledge of and access to certain foods is our earned right. It is cheating if the supermarkets bring them to homebodies and tourists collect them at the airport on the way out.
I feel I have earned the right to drone on about wonderful Venezuelan coffee and why it is so difficult to find because I survived Caracas’ toilet roll shortage of 2009. Really, every day for weeks I drove around all the supermarkets of the city searching out any flushable paper products. Like the natives of the city, I bought my one allocated packet in one supermarket, got in the car and drove to the next. If there was none, I bought none. Expat and local as one in a shared quest. It was while diligently scouring the shelves of every aisle in one that I found the white shrink-wrapped bricks of Venezuelan coffee nirvana. They represented the ideal pick-me-up after shopping, the ideal gift for home, the ideal story to tell. I had earned my licence to boast.
As I say, I’m far from perfect, but I’m not alone. Global Food One-upmanship is not a truly bad fault in the great scheme of things and we combatants do ameliorate our annoyingness with gifts of the delicious foods we have found whenever we can.
Be gentle when you judge us.
P.S. Bi bim bap is a Korean dish meaning “mixed rice”. Rice is topped with vegetables and raw or fried egg and different meats. The sauce is chilli based.
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Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”