EXPAT LIFE: In a recent post on the expat blog section of WSJ, there were some very interesting, although a few squeamish tales of expat food encounters from their overseas countries of residence.
Eating out in America cannot of course compare with ant egg burritos or squid on a stick. As a western country with much food heritage in common with Australia, it is hardly astonishing to see most of the things eaten back home, are also available here.
However despite the large similarities, there are some oddities when it comes to eating out in America that may catch you by surprise. So to assist my fellow expats, here are some quaint if not weird things to look out for:
1. American Meals are crazy large
Whether you are at a diner or an average restaurant, American meals are very large. For the novice expat, you might understandably think your order has been mixed up with Andre the Giant’s. Even children’s meals are huge.
To avoid overeating, order a kid’s meal or share a main meal (called an entrée here) with another person. If that fails, there is always the doggy bag which are readily available in most casual places. In upmarket restaurants, where rationality rules, you often get served smaller meals that are still quite filling.
2. Americans like whipped cream with their drinks and desserts
Unless you know upfront, it is common to get Starbucks, McDonalds and other takeaway places adding whipped cream to any cold drinks, and sometimes hot beverages as well.
It is almost compulsory on desserts. Remember to check the description or picture if available, and request ‘no whipped cream’. There is often a cherry on top of the cream, if you like that sort of thing.
3. Thickshakes are different here
As any parent will know, young children who are hungry or tired, are not often interested in debating or less likely enjoying, the culinary differences between America’s version of their favorite food versus back home. Ergo when the thickshake they ordered tastes too sweet or too chocolaty (not sure this is even a word) or something else unpleasant, this is unsettling for them and expensive for you.
As a general rule, thickshakes are generally less creamy and much sweeter in the US, as they seem to add a huge amount of flavoring. It can be overpowering, so be warned.
4. Sauces, sauces everywhere
Adding sauces is also normal in a wide number of meals. Whether it is sandwiches, hamburgers, Lebanese or Turkish food (Americanized), some extra additive is always available. The thing that is different here is that the sauce and condiment options available are much wider and will be often added without your request as a standard thing. Again check the menu or ingredients in the meal, and if in doubt ask.
The sauces used most are mayo, hot chili sauce, ketchup, mustard, soy sauce and sour cream. Generous use of mayo is common (drowning in mayo is not unusual). Spiciness is also common in Spanish-style or Mexican food.
Then there are many types of salad dressings which you may want to check out too. Not just the standard Italian, Caesar or Balsamic. Ranch Dressing plus a range of alternatives a foot long. So many choices to make…
5. In a bit of a pickle
When McDonalds first came to Australia, it was obvious their burgers were very different to the Australian-style burger. For one thing, they had weird yellow cheese, then there were no beetroot slices in the burger, and weirdest of all, there were green pickle slices added. You either picked them out or just adapted. I had always assumed the pickle thing was a McDonalds-only specialty or signature food. Not so, it seems.
In the US, pickles are common additives to burgers and sandwiches. If not actually placed in the sandwich, they are added on the side of the plate at many eateries. I have often wondered why this is done and from what I read, it is intended to balance acidity in sandwich fillings which often include meat and cheese. Pickles, with their acidic taste are thought to cleanse the palate. Reputedly, using them in this manner, started in NYC amongst kosher delis, then grew to become an ‘all-American’ habit.
Getting pickles left out of any sandwich or off your plate seems rather hard as it is a very entrenched cultural practice. Perhaps you can just pick them out and discard them.
6. Would you like potato chips with that?
Another strange little feature here, is that a packet of potato crisps (called potato chips), are often offered as a side dish with sandwiches or meals. It occurs in some Subway outlets, Panera Bread, and similar style casual eateries. There is often a meal deal which includes a can of soft drink/soda with the sandwich. I am not sure how this got started but perhaps we should blame these odd habits on the Brits!!
Real Food Faux Pas
Nothing mentioned here is really too troublesome but it can be a problem when you have kids, if you are caught unawares. Since moving to New Jersey, we have adjusted to most foods but there are still some that we can just not even contemplate. In future posts, there will no doubt be some more gut wrenching material to discuss, when I review ‘Worst American Foods for Expats’ and other food nightmares.