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How To Adjust to Another Culture's Food

Posted by Lindsay Hall on 11/18/17 1:51 PM

ILP China

Traveling abroad is one of the coolest things you can do. You get to experience new cultures, meet new people and try new foods ... which can sometimes be an adjustment.

While trying new foods is fun, when you're living in a foreign country for an extended period of time it can also be one of the biggest challenges because you're giving up the comfort of your familiar meals. Learning to adjust to the new food is key to making your experience more enjoyable — and we've talked to volunteers who had had to make that adjustment firsthand to give you the best tips. 

It doesn't matter what country you are coming from, food in a new country can be challenging simply because you're not used to it (despite whether you like the new food or not). ILP volunteers tend to struggle a little at the beginning of their semester, but find ways to adjust.

First, Do Some Research

When you're volunteering for a semester in a new country, it's really important that you take the time to learn about the food. They will have foods you are completely unfamiliar with, foods that are familiar to you, but prepared in ways you've never seen and foods that you are familiar with.

We suggest doing a quick search to figure out what the cuisine is like in your country. In China, plan on lots of rice, noodles, and things like chicken, pork and fish. In the Caribbean, plan on eating lots of beans and plantains. Headed to Eastern Europe? Things like potatoes and root veggies are going to be a classic. ILP Volunteers will also get access to a city page all about their city, which includes pictures and a mini description of what you'll be eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Handy, right? 

Then Use These Tips

While the beginning of your semester abroad is usually the hardest when it comes to adjusting to life abroad, if you follow these steps you will be used to the food in no time. 

  • Embrace it
  • Start out slow
  • Don't be afraid
  • Keep an open mind
  • Pack some seasonings 
  • Indulge in comfort every now and then

Embrace it

Food is a big part of most cultures and can be a great way to connect with the locals. Instead of constantly seeking out familiar fast food places like McDonalds, ask the locals (and former ILP volunteers for your city) for the best restaurants.

Finding some local dishes that you love will give you a huge confidence boost. You might not love 100% of the dishes in your country, but knowing that you at least love the soups you eat for lunch or that classic breakfast staple is a big help. 

Start out slow

When you first arrive, don't feel like you have to dive in head first and order the most extravagant thing on the menu that you've never heard of. Dip your toes in first and order whatever is most familiar to you — maybe you've had dumplings at home, and are ready to try dumplings in China. No need to jump straight towards the tofu stir fry. Over the months, you'll be able to find more and more things you end of up liking. 

Don't be afraid

Trust me, I get it. Putting food in your mouth when you're not exactly sure what it is is scary. If you're an ILP volunteer, you're provided 3 meals per day and you likely aren't going to decide what's being served to you.

Food in all countries looks different and it's not always a bad thing. Just because something doesn't look like what you'd eat at home, doesn't mean it's not absolutely delicious! If you need to, close your eyes and give it a try. If you don't like it, don't order it again, or find ways to enjoy it. Maybe that dish you love would be much tastier with a bit of ketchups. 

You can also have someone in your ILP group order first, taste their meal and see if you like it if you're really nervous. 

Keep an open mind

So important! Don't ever judge something by the way it looks. You don't want to offend someone by turning your nose up at a dish they spent time making for you. Even when it's hard, try it! You don't think you like fish at home? Why not give it another try? I've heard so many volunteers in the Caribbean say, "I didn't like coconut before but I love it here!"

You may actually find you like the way they prepared it and it will change your mind completely about the food.

Pack some seasonings

Some volunteers end up really loving the food once they make a couple of adjustments. In Eastern Europe, you'll have quite a few dishes with potatoes and cutlets, but spice it up with some ranch or BBQ sauce, and it tastes just like home! Things like Ranch, hot sauce, ketchup and other seasonings might be tricky to find in your country so think about adding that to your packing list. 

Also, be sensitive about the flavorings. You don't want to offend your school cook or your cute host mom by dousing your meal in ranch. Offer to share your seasonings with your family to give them a taste of home, or discreetly do some seasonings so you don't offend. 

Here are some seasonings and foods that are hard to find abroad that you might want to pack. 

Indulge in comforts every now and then

It's important to maintain a balance of trying new foods and indulging in your comfort foods. It's also important to keep sane and go back to your roots and each some food from home. In all of our ILP countries you will be able to find some foods from home, either at the grocery store or at a restaurant. These will typically be more expensive than local options, so plan that into your budget. 

Here's a hint for you when your packing to go abroad...bring some food from home (like these lightweight treats) with you! 

ILP Thailand

Don't let new food overwhelm you. The more you dive into the culture and try new things, the more "normal" it will start to feel to you. 


Are you're dreaming about volunteering in another country, not sure how to make that happen? Follow the ILP Instagram and click that button below to see how to make a semester happen. We are here to help you fundraise if money's a concern, help answer questions if you don't know which country is right for you, and answer other questions: 

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Topics: Travel Tips, Life Abroad

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Hi! We are ILP, a non-profit org that has service abroad opportunities for college-age volunteers. Check out our tips for making the most of your time traveling and living abroad.

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