There’s No Taste Like Home

We speak to international students about how food is the connection to their home countries

Feature by Katie Goh | 14 Sep 2018

Homesickness manifests in many forms but none so powerful as food. Whether it’s a regional cuisine, an entire style of cooking, alien brands in the supermarket, or even the water tasting slightly off, for international students missing people and food go hand-in-hand.

Marianne, a Norwegian currently working towards a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, finds herself making infrequent trips to IKEA. “Sometimes I go for the meatballs. They’re almost Norwegian and almost the real deal. But for the most part, the cuisine and culinary cultures of my two countries are so similar that Norwegian food is mostly just a special perk of going home. However, we do have a culture of pålegg – basically, any foodstuffs you can put on a single slice of bread – and I always ask my family to pack my favourite ones (caviar paste, liver pate, mackerel in tomato sauce) when they come to visit!”

Marianne notes that she’s lucky that Scandinavian food is having a “moment” in Edinburgh (“I enjoy going to Peter’s Yard for a cinnamon bun!”). Similarly, Anthi from Cyprus. who is half-way through an MFA in Contemporary Art Practice, visits local restaurants serving her native food to stay connected to her home country. “I always seek a Greek restaurant to go to because this is where I can find food made by Cypriot or Greek people and it’s a chance to speak in my native language.”

For students from countries with a significant population in the UK, it can be a little easier to find a taste of home. Huan, from China and studying for a Masters in Interpretation at Heriot-Watt, says that “the UK is an amazing place in terms of Chinese food. I am able to buy any snacks produced in mainland China, Taiwan, and Malaysia here at Chinese supermarkets.” Similarly, James, who is from Singapore and studying Medicine in Aberdeen, has “few complaints” about the many Chinese restaurants in the UK but it’s the little things like fresh fruit – “durian, rambutans and mangosteens” – that he really misses.

However, it’s not just food that differs – the culture around food in the UK is significantly different to other countries. Anthi says that “in Cyprus cafes, stay open as late as midnight. In contrast, in the UK, cafes that offer soft drinks and food as well as kitchens in pubs and restaurants usually close early in the evening. In the UK, there are very few places where one can just chill and not have the pressure of having alcohol.” James agrees – one of the things he misses most about Singapore is “being able to find a place to eat no matter how late it is.”

While your taste palate is adapting to the UK, so is your social life. The very British knack for binge drinking is a culture shock for many international students. In Huan’s experience, this is one of the most alienating aspects of university. “Chinese students are clueless about drinking culture in the UK. We have no idea how are we supposed to drink in the pub,” he says. As well as social drinking, Huan found British food a baffling but enjoyable challenge. “I have spent a year to figure out the variety of cheeses, wines, beers, spirits, liqueurs, and the dazzlingly various ways of cooking potatoes.”

When you’re integrating into a new country, you’re also integrating with the food. While unfamiliar tastes can be alienating, it can also be a way of bringing people together. Potluck dinners in which each person brings a dish representing their native land or treating your new flatmates to a spread of your favourite foods from home can be the start of a beautiful friendship. After all, what university friendship isn’t built on a foundation of hungover scran, starchy pasta, and coming together over a rare home-cooked meal.