Solutions for missing traditional food

serving dishes of food on table
Photo courtesy of Isaleal

In my view, the most challenging aspect of moving to the USA is how to overcome culture shock.

This culture shock happened to me and my family several years ago. It was related to language, clothes, weather, buildings, lifestyle, laws and regulations, values and assumptions. But the most memorable thing in my life during that period of time was related to food, and how to adjust our life in the USA away from our traditional food.

It was 2012 and we had just arrived in Chicago. After 16 hours of flight, we arrived at the O’Hare International Airport and faced a very cold weather there.

For the first time in my life, I went to a fast food restaurant called McDonalds. I did not know what to order.

I randomly chose a burger even though I was very concerned about the type of meat, the type of bread, and other ingredients. But it was a new experience. During our first three days at the airport hotel, we did not find any traditional food from the Middle East. That was the first time that I started to miss my food.

When we had settled in a small town in southern Illinois, we searched for a traditional Middle Eastern restaurant. There was no such a restaurant at all in the area. After that, we used a different strategy.

Instead of searching for restaurants, my husband and I decided to find ingredients for our traditional food and make our own.

This strategy for overcoming missing traditional food was much better than the first one. To some degree, we were able to make some traditional food, but not all foods. We did not find everything that was required to make our traditional food, but there were other ways to do that.

 As an example, one of our traditional food called Kubba needs a fresh and special plant called jatra (thyme). This kind of plant is difficult to find in American stores. We had no choice but to search for a plant that was close in taste. Thus, instead of thyme, we used oregano since it was available in many stores. Also, we used branches of the long celery instead of using the leaves of our traditional small celery.

In these ways, we used similar plants and foods instead of the original ones to overcome the problem of missing our traditional food.

After several years, we were able to find another solution to this food issue: we traveled to nearby states to buy these ingredients. Our small town of Carbondale in southern Illinois is three hours far from Nashville, Tennessee. We went there to find plants and foods, since Nashville has much larger Kurdish and Middle Eastern communities.

For holidays and celebrations, it is even harder to find everything you need. Some families even order very rare spices and food ingredients to be delivered from their countries of birth.

For example, Shawarma and Kabab need some special spices that cannot be found in American stores. It is only available if a friend brings back from outside the United States, or if we shop online.

Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.