Local culture is measured by a myriad of factors, and food is certainly a major one. Cuisine is one of the most characteristic markers of a country’s image, and even though you can get burgers in Thailand, pad Thai in Spain and paella in South Africa, some argue that to really experience the quality of a regional food, you’ve got go there and have it in its natural habitat.
Yet when traveling it’s not always the overall cuisine or national dishes that define a country; it’s the little things that personify a region’s palate. Blood pudding, durian fruit, and skewered chicken hearts are all commonalities around the world that aren’t soon to appear on any American grocery list. As the world grows increasingly more networked and the lines that define culinary preference blur, suddenly you’re ordering eggs benedict on that beach in Belize with only 8 hours of electricity a day, or you are splitting a sleeve of Oreos in the back of a pick-up across the Cambodian countryside.
For the most part, though, travelers learn that walking into a 7-11 in Seoul is massively different than browsing one in New York City or Los Angeles. The seaweed-flavored chips and rice burgers lining the store aislesstick out sharply when navigating a new region.
What is even more apparent is the little things these foreign markets lack that you’d never even expected to miss — things that you are used to having in the fridge or pantry that, in spite of all your best efforts, just can’t be found outside of America (or if they are, sold at an outrageous premium).
Peanut butter, for example, is a precious commodity abroad, and the blow to your wallet seems minimal, but in comparison to its cost back home, it almost pains you to give into the old American spread. If pretzels are your thing, well, just know that you are going to need to figure out a life abroad without them readily available in the nearest deli.
So if you’ve got an ex-pat in your life or you are planning to spend some time abroad, these are the must-have items that should be on their care package list.
Bagel-lovers defend their local favorites to the death, but it is possible to find suitable substitutes abroad; however, cream cheese is a whole other matter. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to find a thin layer of imported Philadelphia at some exorbitant price, but that’s a big maybe. The great American breakfast deficiency doesn’t stop there: maple syrup, hollandaise, and pancakes (no, not those ones disguised as crepes) — these are all neglected abroad, too.
Snacks are a strangely accurate barometer for local culture. Whether it’s seaweed-wrapped rice packets in Korea, dried fish in Russia, or salty licorice in Finland, local snacks are like a sneak-peek into the broader cuisine. Then as you’re sorting through bags of tiny dried crabs, chili-flavored lollipops and mystery jerky, there they are: familiar snacks. But don’t be fooled: the Doritos, Pringles, and Cheetos are themselves tailored to local tastes, and it’s nearly impossible to find any flavor that even barely imitates what you’d want from back home. Chex-Mix, Cheez-It Crackers, Combos, Pretzels? Forget it.
Leslie Finlay is a contributing writer to The Daily Meal. You can follow Leslie on Twitter @dontstayput.
This post was originally published on July 30, 2014.