Taste of Home

One stereotype I’ve frequently heard in my travels is that “Americans are fat,” or more rarely, we are “too obsessed with fitness and gyms.” 37.5% of American adults are obese.* Not, “I need to lose a few pounds to feel fit, “ actually obese. I’m not particularly interested in what the rest of the world thinks about our weight, but I am very concerned about how it affects our next generation. One of the saddest aspects of this issue is that heart disease and diabetes are affecting our population at a younger and younger age. A 2008 study by the Center for Disease Control found that over a third of children and adolescents in the United States were either overweight or obese. 

When I taught in the US, the sad state of my students’ diets was painfully obvious. One day as I watched my students line up, I realized that over half of my class of ten year-olds were overweight, and some of them were quite obese. Fourth graders should sprint across a playground or gym with joy and ease, not wheeze and stop to catch their breath after climbing the ten stairs between our hallway and the art room. They should move with energy and grace, not have difficulty walking due to the size of their thighs. If they wear a size 3XL jacket, it should be due to fashion rather than necessity. Finally, under no circumstances should they have “cankles.” If this the state of a person at ten, what chance of health do they have at forty, fifty, or even thirty?

(Cankles: Not suitable for children)

Some of my students seemed to live on a diet of Hot Cheetos and Doritos. I did not allow them during snack time, but every day they brought giant bags to share in the school cafeteria. The food the school provided did not fare much better. Most meals were 90% refined carbohydrates. Pizza, hamburgers of questionable content, nachos and processed chicken bits molded into a variety of shapes were the weekly staples.

(Because everyone knows Cheetos give you energy for soccer and other sports)

Ten year-olds have limited control over their diets. Parents and teachers can educate children on healthy habits and lifestyles, but give a kid a choice between a roasted chicken sandwich and a Happy Meal, and they will pick the Happy Meal every time. I can’t even place full blame on their parents. I taught in an area of high poverty, and most of my students relied on the school breakfast and lunch as their main source of nutrients and vitamins. In the United States, processed junk food is far more affordable than fresh vegetables and fruits, so schools in districts like my previous one should have made nutrition an even higher priority to match the needs of its students. The lack of fruits, vegetables and whole foods in my students’ diet was a daily source of frustration and sadness for me.

(Let’s guess what parts of the chicken are inside!)

When I moved to the UAE, I expected to see a healthier nation with healthier children. Fruits and vegetables are very inexpensive here, and there are numerous fish markets and butchers with fresh and high quality products. The less processed your diet is, the lower your grocery bill. I would probably spend more on an imported can of chicken soup than I would on the ingredients to make my own. I also teach a population that is not only high income, but also has household staff to prepare healthy and delicious meals. Time and money are not a factor in the diets of 95% of my students. Surely I’d see students eating tasty healthy meals at school. Maybe I’d even get some interesting local recipes from them. Oh, how naive I was.

(My vision)

My colleagues and I spend our days observing our students eat with a mix of shock, amusement and horror. Some students’ schoolbags and lunch boxes  more reminiscent of my post-trick-or-treating Halloween sacks than my school lunches. Students enter the building with lollypops in their mouths, finish snack time with brown mustaches from Nutella sandwiches, and shout goodbye from their buses with mouths full of cookies they didn’t have time to finish during breakfast. The non-sugar contents of their school bags aren’t much better. I don’t worry too much about a small packet of potato chips if part of a balanced meal, but a chocolate sandwich, potato chips, and three types of candies should not fit anyone’s definition of an appropriate breakfast, especially for the growing body and brain of a five-year old. 

(The reality)

A recent study by the World Health Organization showed that a third of Emirati children are overweight or obese.* The education system here is beginning to address this, albeit slowly. As teachers, we’ve created themed units on healthy living and schools offer information days and health screenings for parents as well as students to attend. I’m so proud of my own local co-teacher for enforcing the no-sweets and no-chips rule in our classroom. Every day we praise the children who bring fruit or vegetables, and sweets and chocolate biscuits are immediately confiscated (although sometimes I eat them myself if it’s been a particularly trying day).

I can’t help but wonder where this problem is coming from. I thought that increasing childhood obesity was only a problem in some Western countries. I saw it in the USA, Ireland and the UK, but it didn’t seem as bad in other European countries where diets had more variety and populations were more active. Globalization certainly brought McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s (yeah!) to the UAE, but somehow I can’t accept that it is entirely responsible for a rising obesity epidemic on the Arabian peninsula. What exactly is happening here? One of the most mind-blowing aspects of the chocolate (or processed spreadable cheese) sandwich phenomenon is that it’s taking place in a country with some of the best food options I’ve experienced outside of New York City. 

The UAE is mainly desert, but its proximity to some of the most fertile areas of the planet give us access to a vast variety of fruits and vegetables. If I want to buy eggplant, I have around six different types and colors to choose from. Bananas are the same. I can choose from the standard yellow banana I grew up with, sweet Indian mini-bananas, fat brown ones, or orange flaky ones. The majority-expat population means that supermarkets cater to customers from a number of countries and continents. Not only can I find most of my favorite products from back home, but I can try something new each time I make a grocery run. The same principle applies to restaurants. I rarely go out for “American” food unless I’m craving a good burger. I can find a restaurant from any Asian country I can think of, and the Lebanese and other Middle Eastern restaurants offer the delicious spreads our school lunchtimes are missing. Let’s not forget shawarma and felafel, some of the cheapest and most delicious snack/light dinner foods known to man. I don’t know what I’ll do whenever I leave this region behind. Shawarma cravings are a powerful thing, and they aren’t easy to reproduce at home.

(Lamb, mint, onion, tahina, HEAVEN)

Easy access to ingredients that were once exotic has resulted in new additions to my cooking. My kitchen has become the proverbial melting pot. Exposure to different seasonings and spices means that my black-eyed peas now get a little cumin and turmeric. Hummous, one of my favorite staple snacks and sometimes meals used to mean a trip to Trader Joe’s. Now, tahina is in every store I go to, and I can whip up my own delicious hummous in less than five minutes. I was not exactly born and raised on hummous, in fact, I didn’t know it existed until high school. To my unsophisticated teenage eyes, its beige color and pasty texture did not result in love at first sight. Thankfully we met again in college and began a long and beautiful relationship. Now I enjoy foods from all over the world, and I’ll try most anything as long as I don’t have to promise I’ll like it, even though chances are I will.

(I love you)

One surprising thing I’ve learned in my travels is that wherever I go in this world, I will never be far from one of my childhood comfort foods: fried chicken. Colonel Sanders’ slightly creepy, condescending smile can be seen on street corners around the world. Numerous other chains claiming to serve “Southern” fried chicken are everywhere. It’s not your mama’s fried chicken, my Southern brothers and sisters, and the KFC sides won’t be the same ones you remember from picnics, funerals and family reunions, but if I want battered and deep-fried chicken, I can find it.

(I swear, something’s just not right about the Colonel)

Fried chicken may always be available, but other favorites from home have been difficult to impossible to replace. I’m not convinced I can even find a proper version of one of my all-time favorites, hush puppies, outside of the American South. Hush puppies, for those who have not yet had the pleasure, are one of the simplest culinary pleasures known to man. Take corn meal, season it, add some jalapeno bits if you like, and deep fry them. Eat them with fried seafood. Eat them with anything. You will fall in love before they’ve even finished melting in your mouth.  

(Hush puppies. AKA: Love, deep-fried in grease)

Shrimp and grits, with some white cheddar cheese and hot sauce poured over the top: my mouth waters. The combination of two amazing foods rolled into one bowl of goodness. I pretty much stick to a grain-free diet, but for the occasional bowl of shrimp and grits (with hush puppies, perhaps) I will make an exception. If you’ve never lived in the South, you will not understand grits. They have to be prepared by someone who knows what they are doing, and when they are, they are a treat.

I will never figure out why Mexican/Tex Mex cuisine can not successfully travel beyond the continent of North America, but in my experience, it just can’t. Despite the availability of most of the ingredients, the chef is bound to offer a bizarre international interpretation of a dish or use some horribly inappropriate substitute for a crucial component. If I had to choose one Mexican food I miss the most, it would be the one I gorge myself on whenever I visit the States: chorizo. Chorizo is a spicy sausage that is wonderful with anything. Eat it with eggs, tacos (my favorite) or just a giant fork. I miss the smell, the texture, and the flavorsome red oil that soaks everything it touches. Buying my ticket for a visit home starts the chorizo countdown every time.

(just one evening of last year’s chorizo-fest)

I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have access to my favorites from back home in addition to my local favorites here. If I did, I’d probably end up making my own personal contribution to the UAE’s obesity statistics. It would be difficult to model healthy eating habits to my students with chorizo grease trailing down the front of my abaya or to praise Abdullah’s apple slices through a mouthful of shrimp and grits.

Missing food from home gives me yet another commonality with the UAE’s diverse expat community. You can ask people from Canada, Nepal or the Sudan: it doesn’t matter how many ingredients or restaurants you can find that look just like the ones in your own country. Nothing tastes quite the same when you’re far from home. Fried chicken is best enjoyed near magnolia trees instead of palms, just like felafel tastes better when the call to prayer and grape-scented sheesha smoke drift through the streets. Those irreplaceable, non-portable favorites just gives us one more thing to look forward to when we get home.

Question: What foods do you love the most about countries you have visited or lived in? What foods do you miss the most from your home?

Addition:  Please visit this excellent website for a fast and FREE way to contribute to organizations working to feed those in need all over the world.  All you have to do is click the button and the website’s advertisers will donate the equivalent of 1.1 cup of food to a needy person.  Want to do more?  Donate more or purchase some of the lovely fair-trade items for sale on the site.  10 seconds or less a day to help eradicate world hunger…



1): http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

2: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm

3: http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/health/official-concern-grows-over-rising-child-obesity


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cyndi
    Jul 26, 2012 @ 01:17:22

    This post made me miss hush puppies and KFC biscuits! But like you, we miss Mexican food the most. The Aussie try really hard at Mexican, but we need Mexicans to do Mexican food right.

    We found a source for American bacon and Southern grits here, so those needs are checked off. : )

    We haven’t found an Aussie dish that we are totally in love with. We tend to eat a lot of Indian and Thai here. The fish and chips are good and different from England’s, but I don’t see us craving it when we leave.

    That’s really interesting about the UAE kids and obesity. I would not have expected it in your part of the world, but the sad fact is that the world of nutrition is changing everywhere.


    • The Overthinking Expat
      Aug 28, 2012 @ 17:01:50

      Thanks for commenting, Cyndi- I bring grits and Mexican seasonings over from visits home. Here the “local” cuisine is hard to find, and the Arabic food is mostly Lebanese, which is wonderful. I agree that nutrition is changing all over the world. Many countries have difficulty feeding their citizens, while others are killing themselves slowly through abundance of poor food choices. I guess there are many forms of malnutrition.


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