Sunday, December 26, 2010

A foodie in the UAE: waiting for my ship to come in

A side effect of moving overseas, and one I didn't anticipate before moving to such a modern and international city as Abu Dhabi, was that my carefully developed and refined mental list of food products acceptable for use in my kitchen would be forced to change drastically. I am a firm believer that a great recipe can downshift to mediocre if made with sub-par ingredients, so I am pretty particular about my choice of groceries.

As a result, I spent many hours in the first weeks after our arrival combing the major grocery chains in town for tried and true pantry staples. Not that I was opposed to trying new brands - after all, there were suddenly international product lines at my disposal - but with all the other major changes going on in my life (including learning to cook using the Metric system and Celsius scale), it was just comforting to see familiar names in my cabinets.

Some American brands I was delighted to find pretty quickly (Jif, Tostitos), but for most other foods, I either could not find my favorite brand or I couldn't find any brand. Most distressing was a complete lack of canned chicken broth, which I use in probably half of my weeknight meals (I know, homemade is much better, but after full day at work, Swanson does the trick). I was also struggling to find American-brand flour (European flour with its higher gluten content does not jive with American recipes). Feeling I could not live without these and a few other staples, I sent out distress calls to our families to send rations.

My mom and sister, as well as Sam's mom, were quick to send us boxes of goodies. But the journey across the sea, customs security checks and the extreme heat of September in the UAE led to some interesting results in those early days, the funniest pictured below. (They have all since become experts at how to wrap food stuffs for a trans-Atlantic trip.)

This box landed on my desk at work with a poof of white smoke, caused by a busted container of powdered buttermilk and a ripped bag of flour. I'm sure there were Anthrax suits involved with its inspection at customs. Fortunately, the quart-sized box of chicken broth stayed in tact, otherwise we may have had a much goopier mess!

Realizing that care packages were not a sustainable method of grocery shopping, I soon began to experiment with new brands, and in some cases new food products altogether, conducting scientific tastings in my kitchen. In the absence of Ghirardelli, my go-to baking chocolate for years, I bought 12 different brands of dark chocolate to find the most suitable. I know, it's a tough job, but I am incredibly dedicated to my craft. Unfortunately for my chocolate desserts and all who eat them (i.e. Sam), the trial winner was a brand only found at the organic grocery store in Dubai Mall, about a 90-minute drive.

Not long after I blogged about my first cornbread experiment, at which time I was convinced the island of Abu Dhabi had yet to discover cornmeal, and after Sam's mom shipped us bags of the stuff (which led to my second cornbread experiment), wouldn't you know, I suddenly began to see cornmeal everywhere! Then I began to notice this was true of a lot of things I had been unable to find in my first few months, including chicken broth, black beans, and baking powder. I also realized (duh) that some groceries are stocked on a seasonal basis only, like canned pumpkin and fresh cranberries.

Last fall, I began to panic when by late October I had not seen canned pumpkin anywhere, and I had volunteered to host Thanksgiving for 10 people. I bemoaned this fact to my sister, in response to which she bought an entire case of the stuff and was about to mail it to me as a surprise when she received my "Found pumpkin!" text and aborted her mission. (Lisa's probably still working her way through that stash.)

So this fall I didn't worry about the pumpkin. As predicted, it was on the shelves by early November, and since last year it was stocked through Christmas, I only bought three cans at the first sighting. Big mistake. The week of Thanksgiving, finding myself one can short for pie, I went back to the store. No pumpkin. I went to another store, and another, and another. I even went to a smaller chain which sometimes stocks items I don't see in other stores. No go.

At this last store, a kindly manager of Indian descent overheard my sighs of distress in the canned fruit aisle and asked if he could help. I told him I had been all over town looking for pumpkin, and then he told me something extremely enlightening which I probably could have figured out on my own but for some reason never thought about. He said there was a problem with the pumpkin shipment from the U.S. and it hadn't made it on the boat, but not to worry, another shipment would come in a few weeks.

Me: "So you're saying there is no pumpkin to be found in all of Abu Dhabi?"

Manager: "Probably not."

Me: "But Thanksgiving is in two days! You're telling me that no Americans in Abu Dhabi will be eating pumpkin pie this year?"

Manager: Nervous laughter.

I don't think he knew about pumpkin pie.

It's not a great mystery, really. Aside from dates and camel's milk, Abu Dhabi doesn't produce much of its own food (with the climate, it simply can't), and so everything has to be imported, which is not only an environmental nightmare (a post for another time), but involves complicated shipping logistics, which if you have ever moved across states, much less across the world, you know are destined to break down at some point. This, I get.

As if to prove my above point, several vans and trucks marked "logistics" were unloading boxes of goods into the back of our grocery store on Christmas Eve as the expats inside madly dashed around for last-minute items.

But it is still a great wonder to me how store owners decide on which brands to stock in the first place and how much to order, and at what intervals. I'm sure it's based upon trading agreements, embargoes, tariffs, profit margins, etc, etc, but I have to wonder how much market research goes into it. I mean, no one has ever asked me whether they should stop stocking Frank's Special Sauce, which we (used to) consume in large quantities, yet mysteriously has been missing from the shelves for the past 6 months.

Another case in point: when I started this post I hadn't seen Ro-tel in stores since March (I know, can you believe they had it in the first place?), but then seemingly out of the blue, I found rows of it at the Lulu. After which I turned the corner to the dairy aisle and found fresh buttermilk for the first time ever! To stock or not to stock: how do they decide the answer to this question?

This shopping uncertainty has turned me into somewhat of a hoarder. Every time I see a product that has previously been denied to me, I feel I need to buy it in bulk, regardless of whether I actually have plans for it. I used to buy only what we needed for the next few days, but now... well, now my shelves look like I'm stocking for a nuclear disaster (one that requires that we eat large quantities of chili con queso, apparently) --

After all, who knows when the next ship will arrive or what will be on it?


  1. I have an American friend that has recently been complaining about the whole canned pumpkin dearth. I suggested she go and buy some pumpkin at Spinneys.
    "You can get it there?" she asked. Err, yeah. You know the big orange things you carve into jack-o-lanterns...?
    "Oh God, no, we don't eat those!" she looked horrified. "it just doesn't taste the same if it doesn't come in a can!"
    To which I replied "No, you're definitely right about that."
    I have SOOOO much more to learn about the States.

  2. When you finally go through all your cans of Ro-tel, let me know...long story short, couldn't find the Ro-tel brand here in Chicago when we 1st moved, but found that the in-store brand of diced chilies and tomatoes tastes the same and is less expensive. So should the need arise for more, let me know...I'd be happy to send some your way!

    PS There was a time, my mom would send items from Texas to us. Having those comfort food items such as our favorite hot sauce, favorite Frito Lay bean dip (which you cannot get here in Chicago only the flavors we don't like, go figure...spices (which cost so much more up here), tortillas, etc make moving away from home a little easier! Last time I was home I bought an ice chest and frozen TC bean & cheese tacos for Jolie and "checked" it as a piece of luggage - ironically it was the only piece of luggage that was search (possibly at lunch time, lol).

  3. Thanks for all the chuckles, Shannon! I especially laughed at the picure of the potential Hazmat disaster with the exploding flour, since I was the one who sent it. It's also fun, since I've been to most of those stores mentioned with you hunting for things, so I have some funny memories of looking for Sam at I think Spinney's who went on an assignment from you to find a particular ingredient. We lost track of him for awhile. It was an entertaining experience.

  4. About chocolate for baking, I find that the Nestle bars are really good...these are the ones in a brown paper sort of wrapping and in the baking section. Not sure of the cocoa percentage, but it's great for brownies, cakes and mousse as well.

  5. OHHH I am sooo glad to see this blog...I am american living in Dubai and I have a cooking disaster at least once a week. I cant make cookies, i cant roast anything, I cant even make sweet tea like I used to. :( But I am like you as well slowly I am figuring out that the things are sometimes there they just look different......doesnt mean they taste the same but they are there. My oven also has the 1-8 numbers and it is so difficult to calculate...I mean u have to go from 350 F to 190 C then look in the manual and see what number corresponds to 190C....Then my over has this whole rotisserie thing...what a joke it is. By the way I found that Spinneys has many things we Amrikis like..including my favorite Dr Pepper. Thank you bunches for writing this blog.

  6. hiee ..could you tell me how you got your hands on the "chicken broth" ???????? that'd be so helpful!!!!!! :D pleaseee....
    i stay in abu dhabi too.... i still havent been able to buy some...and those maggi cubes ..are horrible!!