ID 158166792 © David Tonelson | Dreamstime.com
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.
No matter where you are in the world, there are plenty of staples across cuisines, but it’s the spices and condiments that really can really set apart signature dishes. What defines “spicy” varies irrevocably from region to region, and not quite anything can be swapped out for Frank’s Red Hot sauce. This is always a big winner in any ex-pat care package. A not-to-be-forgotten honorable mention: ranch dressing.
Fruit is generally a very regional thing, and often a major benefit of traveling abroad. Things like mangoes or avocadoes that might be expensive where you’re from are basically given away in parts of the world, while you get a host of fruits not even readily available in the States like coconuts, papayas and durian. But it’s a definite trade-off. Things like apples, blueberries, and raspberries are all but unavailable in many parts of the world. (Don’t be surprised at the $14 sticker price if you can find them.)
Foreigners make fun of Americans’ want (or need) for peanut butter like the Australian affection for Vegemite. They just don’t really see the big deal of it all. But universally speaking, peanut butter is truly the unicorn of American finds abroad. As for the elite with their taste for other nut butters, vis-à-vis almond butter, cashew nut butter… as far as many foreign cuisines are concerned, these exist firmly outside the realm of possibility.
While you can certainly find chocolate most places abroad, often some of the best in the world, that quintessential Hershey’s Chocolate Bar that we all grew up with is notably absent. Like snacks, candy itself is highly colloquial. Ex-pats also are always on the lookout for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Starbursts, as both rare finds.
This one’s kind of a misnomer, because of course you can find Mexican food in, say, Mexico. But stumbling upon a truly good American-style Tex-Mex or Mexican restaurant abroad is a game-changer in an ex-pat’s experience with his or her own foreign home – especially if it’s one that doesn’t try to create some odd fusion. Kimchi tacos? Curry quesadillas? No, thanks.)
Pizza is actually a pretty reliable find around the world — it seems like even in the most remote areas or lounging on deserted islands, you can still score some pretty good pizza. But those one-dollar grease-soaked-paper-plate slices? That is truly an American luxury.
Gum is a very personal preference to begin with, and people tend to always reach for the same kind time and time again. And compared with back in the States, options abroad are just not the same. Toothpaste and mints undergo the same weird transformation from their American cousins. Your first brush with salt-flavored toothpaste will have you craving good old peppermint Crest in a way you never thought possible.
These days there are entire restaurants dedicated to a menu of gourmet macaroni and cheese choices, but there’s something nostalgic about that blue box of Kraft Mac & Cheese. Nothing else on earth quite emulates whatever that orange powder is, and when the craving hits, even the most decadent restaurant dish just doesn’t quite live up to the standard our childhood set. Kraft isn’t the only absent brand, though; Velveeta lovers will be disappointed abroad as well. While we’re on the topic: R.I.P., Spaghettios.
… or potato skins, mozzarella sticks, pizza rolls… really any boxed, frozen, nuke-able snack that feeds your average Superbowl party or football tailgate. There’s almost an irony to finding these sorts of snacks overseas. On a menu in a Western food restaurant, they’ll be exorbitantly priced, as if Totino’s is really some kind of luxury.
Pie crust, peanut butter bars, and endless other desert options — graham crackers pop up in American baking more than we realize, and they’re all distinctly lacking without that value-added item. Plus, what American childhood is complete without roasting s’mores in the summertime or building gingerbread houses over the winter holidays?
A commodity in America due to their availability those precious few months out of the year, no entrepreneurial young American girl has yet stockpiled and cornered an international Girl Scout Cookie market demand. Booze may be the universal language, but shelling out Thin Mints will go a long way in making you some new local friends as well. Also absent abroad: cookie dough.
This food item is the bane of nutrition’s existence. There are few things that are so unhealthy within the American repertoire of junk food, but not even the greatest critic can avoid scooping a handful after getting a whiff of that permeating butter smell. Around the world, theaters have basically universally adopted popcorn as the de-facto offering, even adding in caramel and cheese options, but no known butter flavor lives up to the trans-fatty-goodness of that in the States.