Food adventures of a first-year international student

20 Oct

I’m a pretty easy-going person in terms of what I will or won’t eat. I am happy to be vegetarian – or not. I like spicy food, but do not equate hotness with taste. I’m willing to try strange foods even if I don’t quite know what they are. I’m just as happy with a BLT as with a traditional khichri.

Bacon + lettuce + tomato = happiness (image by stu_spivack, used under CC BY 2.0 license)

Bacon + lettuce + tomato = happiness (image by stu_spivack, used under CC BY 2.0 license)

When I first went abroad to study, I had open mind, food-wise, but not a lot of information. I mean, I was familiar with pizza and pasta and all that, but I didn’t really know what a BLT was.

I should mention that I grew up in an India that did not freely import non-essential consumer items. Many brand names and products that are familiar to us today were not so then. So my brain knew that provolone was a cheese, that pumpernickel was a bread, for instance, but it couldn’t translate the words into taste or texture.

On my first day on campus, at the international student orientation, they told us how to open a bank account, get a social security number, register for classes, and other important things. But they didn’t tell us what to eat! Well, when we broke for lunch, I sauntered off to the food court in the student hub. I walked up to the deli counter, whose menu featured BLTs, Reubens, and other words that were taste-less and texture-less to me. Having no personal food taboos, I decided to learn to identify the strange kinds of meat, cheese and bread by making random choices every time and just seeing what appeared on my plate.

The next ‘bemusement park’ was the grocery store. I went with two American friends, who had clearly no prior experience in taking a clueless international student grocery-shopping. We entered a vast, fluorescent-lit labyrinth full of familiar and strange foods. My friends quickly grabbed a shopping cart each and hared off in different directions. For no particular reason, I had been assuming we’d walk around the store together. Surely even the three of us couldn’t have actually filled one of those giant carts that could easily accommodate two or three children?

I stood bewildered for a couple of seconds, and then quickly ran after one of my friends before she disappeared into the aisles.


My friend was familiar with some Asian foods and proved very helpful, after all. Having barely any idea how to cook, and no clue how bad processed food was for me, I bought some canned soup, among other things. It was only when I discovered that there existed such a thing as ‘vegetarian vegetable soup’ that I realized that ‘vegetable soup’ was made with meat stock. I didn’t care about the meat stock; what bothered me about canned soup was the taste, which I now associate with high sodium content.

My first grocery store experience included a purchase that scarred me for years. I knew that Americans called coriander ‘cilantro’. But what I had brought home, washed, chopped, and lovingly sprinkled all over my daal was not cilantro, but parsley. When you’re confidently expecting one taste, and experience something unrelated, the result is enduring disgust. I could not stand the smell of parsley for years.

Never confuse coriander or cilantro (left) with parsley (right) - you have been warned! (Image by David Mulder, used under CC BY 2.0 license)

Never confuse coriander or cilantro (left) with parsley (right) – you have been warned! (Image by David Mulder, used under CC BY 2.0 license)

Often, the surprises were pleasant. The first time I made masala chai for American friends, they remarked that it tasted like pumpkin pie. We discovered that some of the masalas in masala chai are also used in pumpkin pie. To prove the point, a friend baked one, and yes, they do taste somewhat similar.

And all this was just my first semester. The following years were filled with food adventures, and I’m happy to say nearly all of them were good.

Got a foreign food story to share? Leave a comment below or email us!


By: Uma Asher

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