The Way to a Country's Heart is Through its Stomach
By: Susannah Rigg
Eating, probably one of the most important parts of the day and probably one of things that alter most when moving to another country. In Oaxaca, Mexico adapting to eating patterns can take a while.
Think about how you eat. Do you buy your food for the week from the supermarket in advance? Do you decide what to eat for dinner at 7pm and go out to buy the ingredients? Do you eat small lunches and big dinners or the other way round?
I was a, “decide what I might eat and go and buy it” kinda girl. I used to eat big dinners and small lunches, I loved to cook. Looking back, this was probably the thing that changed the most for me when I arrived in Oaxaca and it wasn’t a change that I adapted to easily. In fact, I would probably say that this culture shock was the most subtle but most intense of them all.
The first few months of living here I relished eating Mexican food. Mainly eating a comida corrida (lunch of four courses, and a flavoured water that usually costs about £2/ $4 USD), and then grabbing a quesadilla for dinner. I quickly learnt that big lunches and small dinners were the Mexican way and I kinda liked it. It made sense.
However, as the months wore on I craved cooking and with it I craved the ingredients I knew and loved. Oaxaca is known for its fantastic food and the food really is mind-blowing, but the problem for me was variety. I am from London a city where you can eat food from a different country every day of the week; I was spoilt when it came to choice.
I began to instruct friends and family who visited to bring Thai curry paste, sweet chili sauce, Indian curry sauces and naan breads, oh and gravy to make the perfect English Roast dinner. On one trip home I filled my suitcase with food, everything from baked beans (an English staple) to a number of different European cheeses (apologies to any customs people reading this) and reveled in the joy of their flavours for the next few weeks. For quite a while Oaxacan food lost its charm and the thought of cooking Mexican food was just too daunting. I also seriously craved vegetables; something that rather strangely is lacking from a lot of Mexican food and I completely went off corn tortillas, a big problem in Mexico.
It was at this point I hit a stale mate. My cooking just didn’t taste the same here and I started cooking about three dishes over and over. I would start to think about dinner at 5 just as my local market was shut and I would realize I had no ingredients and no means of getting any unless I fancied a long schlep to the supermarket. So dinner would inevitably be the old student favourite, tuna pasta. Pretty embarrassing at 30 years of age! It sounds like a strange thing to get concerned about but I really think it is one of the biggest changes that I faced moving to Oaxaca.
However, just as I hit the two-year mark, things changed, I guess somehow I stopped fighting things and I began to adapt to the Oaxaca market food way of life. I shop regularly for the freshest ingredients, I know what is in season and I cook accordingly, I started to realize just how super lucky I am to be able to eat fresh, locally sourced, seasonable food on my own doorstep. I started to crave Oaxacan cheese and corn tortillas again and I love to cook with them. Suddenly, I realized just what a luxury it was to live like this and I knew I would miss it if I didn’t have it. I still resist shopping daily for food but poco a poco, little by little I am moving in that direction.
So I guess this is another, if you can’t beat them join them story and now I can’t imagine living any other way! What started as culture shock turned into an improved way of living!
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Contest Comments » There are 18 comments
Great post! Living in Oaxaca, I've had the same struggles and adjustments here. I love Mexico Retold, keep up the great writing!
Really honest thoughts on food! anyone would feel the same coming from a major city (the novelty of local food every single day soon wears off). Have you thought of opening an "English shop" like the Polish, Aussies and Safas have in London? Or is there no call for it? When away from home, we all crave the food from our childhood, I'm sure the customs wouldn't mind if they found a tray of sheperds pie in your suitcase.
Susannah is wonderful about sharing the real life experience of living in Mexico and how to make the most of it. She shares her deep love of the country and its people, and now has written a beautiful piece on incorporating its unique food into your meals. A mouthwatering delight! Thank you Susannah!
Nicely put! Nothing more basic than food. "Eating locally" can be fulfilling and delicious anywhere, albeit with some adjustments, but in Oaxaca....It's paradise! Now when I go back to my country, I have to bring moles, mezcal, quesillo, tlayudas.... Fun and interesting article! Great topic! Thanks for sharing your experience.
I loved reading your story and my mouth is watering just thinking about all the lovely food. I live in England and work so sometimes our meals are wholesome but would probably seen quite boring. My appetite has been whetted to be more adventurous and so I will be going to the library to see what I can find a la Mexico. I love all of your photos and stories and would love to be able to visit one day.
I totally understand! I´m Mexican-American and live in Europe. When I go home to visit, I fill one suitcase with Mexican products including corn tortillas and pure vanilla extract for baking.
For someone who loves Mexico and eating, and is also trying to find my way in a new world through food, this article is perfect. I especially loved the title. Absolutely brilliant!
I can't wait to be back in Oaxaca for some of my favorite food. You made my mouth water!
Thanks for sharing your story Susannah! Culture shock with the food is something I myself go through living here in Mexico too,so it is nice to know I am not alone. Funny that you mentioned you have friends bring you down food, or you stock up yourself when you are in London. Seems to be the case with all ex-pats. Just had a friend ask me to ask my mom to bring down Reeses Pieces for her! Enjoy your tortillas and Oaxaca cheese :)
This story is one I share in an oposite direction. I don't live in Mexico, I live in London. I'm not from Mexico, nor and I from London. But I once visited Mexico and Oaxaca and it still sits firmly in my mind. Much like your post alludes to, I have every ingredient known to man and women here in London. I can have a roast when ever i like, Chinese and Japanese, Korean, Indian, Spanish and French cuisine is a 5 minute stroll from my front door. But I don't go out for my food. I cook every night and I can't stop eating those delicious Fajitas!
This story is one I share in an oposite direction. I don't live in Mexico, I live in London. I'm not from Mexico, nor and I from London. But I once visited Mexico and Oaxaca and it still sits firmly in my mind. Much like your post alludes to, I have every ingredient known to man and women here in London. I can have a roast when ever i like, Chinese and Japanese, Korean, Indian, Spanish and French cuisine is within a 5 minute stroll from my front door. But I don't go out for my food. I cook every night and I can't stop eating those delicious Fajitas!
I can totally relate to Susannah's experience in Oaxaca having lived here for years and being from London... An amazing breakthrough was when I suddenly started craving fresh tortillas when I was home!
This all sounds so familiar!! I feel exactly the same way. Still can't bother to go to the market in the morning for my dinner shoppings, though. And when I do I usually end up throwing away rotting vegetables after a week because my plans to cook never worked out and there was always something else to do in the evening!
Great Post! I believe one of the hardest thing to adapt when you move to a different culture is the eating habits. When we move to Canada from Mexico, it took us more than 2 years to get into the schedule for meals here. I still miss so much the street food and the convenience of just go down the street to buy Comida Corrida or tacos when you don't feel like cooking.
thank you! i sometimes feel like i am supposed to only marvel and love the food of any place i visit. i love oaxacan food. but i miss convenience and variety!
Food shapes life in so many ways which you can feel so much from your writing. It is such a blessing to eat seasonal fresh local food so I imagine u must be alive with oaxacan jive and zing everyday you awesome gal...:)
I'm at the beginning of my expat journey, only 5 months in to my new life in New York, but your blog resonates. I'm a typical Brit in that I have already put in orders with visitors to bring tea, gravy, marmite, bog-standard chocolate, veggie stock cubes. And they are ravished when they arrive, both the treats and the visitors. Thanks for your blog, an enjoyable read
I think this is the way most of us start out living in a new country and culture. Convenience of finding what you want when you want is what I miss most living in Oaxaca. But as Susannah wrote one adapts and poco a poco you find yourself figuring it out and changing your ways. Glad to see that others are dealing with similar issues, and glad to see that that has not prevented us from living lives in places that are strange and foreign to us at least some of the time. Thanks for the blog!