How To: Preserve Expat Memories Through Food

Keep past travels alive

by SHFamily | Thu, June 15, 2017

By Darcie Hunter

This time of year is full of change for many expats. Overwhelmed with emotion and by nerves, relocating often pushes you to scramble – shopping for last-minute souvenirs and keepsakes to bring home so you can remember your days in the ‘Hai. From framed cityscapes to ginger jars and lamps, the lists grow long as the days grow short.

It’s now almost a year and a half since I left Shanghai, and looking around my home at purchases I’ve made makes me happy, reminding me of my time in Asia. For me though, some of the most valuable things I took with me are intangible. During my time overseas, I made a tremendous effort to experience and learn about the varying regional cuisines.

When it came time to pack up, I was disappointed to learn that my carefully collected spices and sauces couldn’t be packed by the movers, allowing me to only bring a meager supply of Shanghai goodies home in my suitcase. Saddened, I gave most of my food items to friends, but I knew in my heart that the knowledge and experience I had gained through the years could not be taken away from me.

With that in mind, I would like to offer a practical guide to help bring your food memories back home with you. Thinking back, I wish I had been a bit more methodical in my information gathering. Hindsight is 20/20 though and the least I can do is pass on some of my thoughts post-repatriation on how to make the most of your culinary adventures.

Step 1: Collect Information

Make a point of going to restaurants, even street vendors you’ve enjoyed, and collect as much information as possible. Don’t be shy about asking for recipes. Often when they know you’re leaving soon, cooks are happy to share trade secrets and are proud that you loved their food enough to want to recreate it at home.

Ask to visit the kitchen and see first-hand how your favorite dishes are made. Don’t be shy – play the “expat card” to your advantage and get into the thick of things. Take notes and step-by-step photos, so that you don’t forget a thing – at some point it will all become a blur and you don’t want to miss a crucial ingredient or step. Think ahead to questions you will have later such as: “How did he cut those vegetables again?” or “Did she say to chop the ginger into slivers or dice it finely?”

Thakurani learning the secrets of the Indian kitchen. Payal herself is moving on this summer and she’s had a huge impact on the expat community, having taught hundreds of people about her cooking culture. She currently has a book, Curries for the Soul, available to purchase through Kate and Kimi, with 15 percent of its sales go to a fund for Gracie’s Heart Surgery. My Egyptian friend, Miral, also taught me some of her favorite recipes, which I still make and adore to this day. The expat experience is not just about everything Shanghai has to offer, but what your fellow travelers bring with them as well.

If you are a newer expat (and not just about to leave Shanghai) be intentional about your time abroad. Take every formal cooking class available to you and make plans to have informal cooking sessions with friends from different countries. There are so many opportunities to connect with different food cultures through fellow expatriates. Some of my fondest memories were the times I spent with Payal

And don’t forget the food experts that many of you have right under your own noses – Ayis. If you have family favorites that your Ayi has cooked for you, ask her to write them down. If you can, take notes on the ingredients. Brand names and photos of raw ingredients or labels will help you later when shopping back home. Don’t hesitate to be adventurous with your menu requests. Consider asking your Ayi to make her favorite childhood meal for you, or to recreate some other favorite dish of hers. Even if you don’t love the result, you will learn more about REAL Chinese food.

Step 2: Documentation

Everyone has different methods of organizing their documents, photos and memories. A journal or notebook is a great practical way to record recipes on a day-to-day basis. It’s easy to carry around a pen and paper for those times when an impromptu lunch at a restaurant turns into an educational experience. The information can be handwritten in Chinese and you can always translate with a friend or take further notes at a later time. If you don’t want to store a journal indefinitely, you can take photos of the individual pages and catalog them later. But don’t wait to compile everything at once. I find it important to revisit notes scribbled or recipes jotted down the same day, or within a week at the latest, so that nothing is forgotten.

After initial quick notebook entries are made, it’s often helpful to move them over to the computer to finish your documentation. This is when you can link up your notes with photos taken and ensure that it all makes sense to you right now. If it doesn’t, ask questions while you still can, otherwise there is no way you will be able to decipher it a year later.

For the digitally inclined, Evernote is a fantastic application for organizing projects. With this app, you can make notebooks with sub-pages for each recipe collected. Images can be inserted so that everything is in one place. You can easily share notes, or add collaborators so that friends can have input on each document as well. Other great apps for organizing recipes and notes are Laverna and Google Keep.

Step 3: Application

Once you leave Shanghai, you’ll be happy to have collected and organized tons of information on local and international dishes – but what can you do with it? Aside from using your recipes to add to your own family’s menu repertoire, there are many ways to share what you’ve learned with others. Since repatriating, I have started a food blog at www.gourmetcreative.net, and I love to share recipes I’ve learned with my readers. A few easy-to-use programs for creating your personalized food record are:

  • Squarespace
  • Blogger
  • WordPress
  • Wix

Another way to share your collected information is to host informal or formal cooking classes. I’ve really enjoyed sharing my old babysitter’s dumpling recipe with family and friends. After spending a couple of years in Shanghai, we take it for granted that everyone knows how to make jiaozi, but for folks back home it’s new, exciting and a refreshing change from frozen pre-made fare. 

Finally, recipes and photos can be made into a cookbook. If you have a knack for design, you can attempt to layout and print your own basic cookbook. For a more user-friendly experience, you can look to:

These companies make it so that you’re as involved as you want to be. Send them the text and photos and they can do it all for you, or they have designs and templates to choose from.

Depending on where you move to, it can be challenging to find ingredients for your collected recipes. I always make an effort to find the Asian markets close to where I live and make conversation with the proprietors. If you’re having trouble finding something, you can reference your old photos to help them find what you need. Some large chain of Korean and Japanese shops have opened in recent years and you may be surprised to find one closer than you expected. H-Mart and Mitsuwa are two to check out if you’re based in the US, and don’t forget that there’s always Amazon. Simply search for the items and brands you want and have them delivered right to your doorstep, completing your makeshift Shanghainese pantry.

I was surprised to find that I miss Shanghai on a daily basis. However, my connection to my expat experience stays alive in my kitchen. With proper planning, note taking and organizing, you can preserve your memories, on a small or large scale. No matter how long you will be living in Shanghai, make the most of your time and never stop learning. Your family and friends back home will thank you, and your memories will be preserved for the years to come.