Serial expat (and soon to be repat!) Joanna Masters-Maggs is back with some juicy global food gossip to share.
“Oh, I see, it’s that time again, is it?” My husband entered the kitchen and sniffed the air. “It’s smells like Christmas, but it’s 30 degrees outside. “You’ll be wanting tea with that gingerbread?” Sighing he reached for the kettle.
Now, I’m not saying that expat life calls for comfort food more than any other lifestyle, but it does have it’s own rhythm of needs. For me, the main calls for comfort come during the entry and exit period of a new location.
I am now facing moving on from France—and frankly, even my beloved madeleine is not up to the job.
I need the kind of comfort food that warms up the winter, as neither the glorious weather nor the proximity of pools and beaches here in Provence can distract me this time.
Bikini be damned, my next move will be a return to England.
It is hard to imagine that repatriation can be more alarming than a move from one foreign country to another. Yet, after 18 years abroad and seven intercontinental moves, I am discovering that it is.
Our house in England is our holiday home, and we have few of the friends and none of the social networks we would have built had we stayed put. All the friends we have made at various offices, playgroups, schools, dog training groups and sundry activities are scattered across several continents. We will be in the interesting position of not belonging, while giving every outward appearance of doing so and no possibility of joining a repat support group (do such things even exist?).
You understand why I am reaching for the gingerbread now?
The act of making gingerbread is a comfort in itself. Just watching the butter, syrup and sugar melt together and swirl in the pan, gives one time to relax and think.
Mm…as I watch the ingredients swirl, I’m thinking about cultural comfort foods of locations past.
Morning sickness in New Orleans calls for Morning Call
For anyone into comfort eating, my former home of New Orleans is a dangerous place. There are just too many temptations along the path of righteous eating, beginning with crawfish stew, jambalaya, seafood gumbo…
But it was beignets with coffee from Café du Monde or Morning Call (the less touristy choice, favored by locals) that became my preferred source of solace.
Of course life in New Orleans is pretty fabulous, especially when you are lucky enough to live in the French Quarter and see the life that exists behind the touristy façade. But comfort requirements are still there. Coffee and beignets are a fabulous hangover buster for one thing and for another they sure beat morning sickness into retreat while providing a good dose of the additional calcium an expectant mum needs. For me, the beignet and café au lait was the multi-tasking workhorse of comfort foods.
When it came time to leave the Big Easy, the beignet soothed my sadness, and I was careful to ensure I had a good recipe (see end of post) should it be needed to help with my adjustment to the next location: Den Haag.
The only problem, of course, with making your own beignets is the terror one feels when cooking with large quantities of hot fat—so it was with relief that I quickly discovered a more convenient way to ease my emotional entry into The Hague.
A cold arrival in Holland calls for oliebollen
We arrived in the middle of a particularly cold Christmas season. You can only imagine my delight at catching my first whiff of oliebollen and appelflappen, which fills the air that time of year.
Oliebollen is a Dutch style of doughnut that is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve, and appelflappen are a kind of apple beignet—YES!—served with sugar and cinnamon and sold from little stands throughout the Christmas season.
What a happy Christmas that turned out to be. What joy to have a little bag of those to warm both your chilly fingers and the depths of your heart.
How can you not love living in such a place?
Dumpy in Brazil calls for Disk Cook
And then there was Brazil. Now Brazil provided a different sort of comfort food to get me through the hard times. Being pregnant and feeling dumpy in a land full of girls from Ipanema in tiny bikinis isn’t exactly fun—but then, suffering from the heat, I cut off all my hair. Short.
You don’t do that in Brazil. It’s akin to cutting off your femininity. It’s ugly.
Happily unaware of this and feeling as though I was channeling mid 1990s Meg Ryan, I returned home from the hairdresser. My housekeeper took one look of me and clapped her hands loudly to her cheeks with a look of pure horror. After a slight pause and in an unnaturally high voice, she said “Madame looks beautiful”—before making her excuses and disappearing for half an hour.
The next few days were a bit unsettling as Maria avoided eye contact. It wasn’t that I minded her thinking my hair was ugly, more that I was now aware of how little I understood the culture. How many other things was I getting wrong?
As insecure as it makes me sound, I decided not to compound one aesthetic error with that of gaining weight, too. I avoided thoughts of my beignet recipe and my go-to home remedy of buttered toast. I also steered clear of the local padarias (bakeries). Instead I filled up on fruit.
But the thing is, comfort food is the kind of thing that finds you and it doesn’t have to come in carbohydrate form. You just need to be open to it: it being a well-rounded flavor that puts your taste buds at ease.
The comfort food of Brazil found me rather quickly. Disc Cook is a service which will collect food from a huge list of restaurants and deliver to your house. A new restaurant opened in our area and we decided to try it out. Imagine my surprise when the healthy sounding chicken liver and spinach dish turned out to be my next comfort food.
No, hear me out. Full-flavoured meat that melted in the mouth, cooked with balsamic vinegar and pine nuts. Yes, I know it sounds odd, but it was so richly satisfying, I couldn’t get enough of it. I even took comfort in the cold leftovers of that dish, straight from the fridge.
In honesty, however, comforting as it was, it can never qualify as true comfort food. Firstly, it comes from a good restaurant and true comfort food should not be exclusive. Secondly, I was never able to find or make up that recipe for myself. If it is too hard to lay your hands on, it isn’t comfort food. Comfort food cannot be a cause of any stress—other than the weekly weigh-in, of course.
Enough of my unabashed wallowing, and now for my beignet recipe
As I write, I am beginning to feel a little nostalgic and rather sad again. The problem with being in a constant state of serial expatness is that each time you leave one place, you remember the pain of leaving the last. It is a sort of travellers’ emotional add-on game. Sometimes I have to walk away from it. That is true now.
Perhaps next time I can tell you how I found solace from homesickness and last-location-sickness in the foods of Malaysia, Venezuela and Saudi.
(If you have had enough of this unabashed wallowing, I apologise—but would politely point out that at least I haven’t descended to mentioning visits to certain popular fast food chains, which I have no doubt we perpetual expats have all indulged in at least once or twice. For that we must be grateful.)
New Orleans-style Beignets, adapted from The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook
NOTE: I made the conversions to grams years ago. Metric rocks!
1 package dried yeast
3 tablespoons warm water (hand hot)
180 ml milk
28g shortening (or lard—which I prefer)
1 tsp salt
375g all-purpose flour
1 large egg
Combine the yeast and water and leave to stand for five minutes.
Combine the milk with the sugar, shortening and salt in a saucepan over a low heat until the fat melts. Remove from the heat and leave to cool until again hand hot. Very hot liquid will kill the yeast and so it will not rise. If your hand can tolerate the heat, so too can the yeast.
Combine yeast mixture, liquid mixture, two cups of the flour and the egg in a large mixing bowl. Beat at medium speed with an electric mixer for two minutes. Gradually stir in as much of the remaining flour as you need to make a soft dough.
Put dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place in a buttered bowl, cover and leave to rise in a warm place for one hour until doubled in size.
Punch dough back, turn onto a floured surface and roll out into a 30 x 25cms rectangle. Cut into two-inch squares and place them onto a lightly floured surface where they can be covered and left to rise until double in size (about 45 minutes).
Pour oil into a pan to a depth of about 3 or 4” and heat to 375° F (190 °C). Fry the beignets four at a time until golden. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve warm. YUM.
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Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! What new comfort foods have you added to your list on your moves around the globe? And do you have any words of comfort for Joanna on her imminent repatriation? Be sure to let us know in the comments!
Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global 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?”
STAY TUNED for the next fab post!
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Another great article. Love reading your stuff Joanna!
Laissez les bons temps rouler!! Aaaiiyyy-eeeeee!
Toujours! Thank you for your kind comment. You’ve made my day at it’s only 10.15am.