Going from a dorm to an apartment is interesting. At my home university, you live on campus for three years, and only a few of the dorms have kitchens, which means lots of late night iHop runs, microwave pasta, and dining hall food. So going to New Zealand, I finally got my own room (at school, at least), and a coveted kitchen. Here’s the thing, I love to cook and bake. I love to experiment with different recipes, scour the Pinterest boards for new ideas, and the baking aisle of the grocery store is hands down my favourite aisle.
So I ventured into New Zealand with visions of grandeur and the plan to actually cook 90% of my meals. I miscalculated on some things, though. For one, New Zealand (and pretty much the rest of the world) uses Celsius. My only exposure to Celsius was hearing my Canadian friends gripe about the cold weather. I spent a good 30 minutes doing math and Googling before I could figure out exactly what I needed to set our oven at for various recipes.
Secondly, walking into the grocery store was extremely intimidating at first. The food looked different, I didn’t recognise any of the brands, and all of the aisles were in different places. It took me about a month to find the canned tomatoes for instance. It’s strange how attached you get to your grocery store. In Wellington, there are two competing grocery stores – Countdown and New World. Countdown is a little lower-priced, but New World is a glorious invention. New World, as I discovered, seems to have a few members of their staff whose only job is to go around and keep the shelves perfect. They have the perfect stacks of oranges, the perfectly lined up shelves. . . It is food art.
Things were good for that month – I got into a routine, figured out the milk grading system (the grey lid ones were so much better than the blue-lid. The blue lid tasted like water. Only took me two bottles. . . maybe three.), and spent a good amount of time just wandering through the grocery stores, figuring them out. But at the beginning of the second month, I made an even better discovery. The farmers’ market. If your city has one – GO! They are fabulous inventions. Baskets upon baskets of fresh fruit and veggies, flowers, meat, and food trucks, they are the perfect place. Wellington’s largest farmer’s market was down on the harbour, with beautiful ocean views, in the shadow of the National Museum, with dozens of vendors, musicians, puppeteers, and occasionally puppies. I never bought fruit in the grocery store again.
The farmers’ market was a way to get involved with my city. I got to talk with locals, get recipes, even barter occasionally. I felt like a local. It got me out, involved, and made me truly get to pick out the best food. Since it would open at 7 am, the earlier you got down there, the better luck you had, because if you got there closer to 2, when it closed, you were getting slim pickings. It made me feel like a chef.
New Zealand may be a modern country, but compared to the US, it feels like time travel to a simpler time. As I was modifying my recipes to accommodate the different cooking temperatures and converting things to litres and millilitres, I was also cutting things like Pilsbury out. Tubed pastry is not a thing outside of North America, it would seem. I had never realised how much I relied on staples like that for cooking. However, I had also never been into a bakery to buy bread. A real bakery – not just the one that’s in the grocery store. If I liked fish, there was even a fish market only a block away from my flat. Grocery shopping became this fun adventure rather than that errand you have to run in order to eat.
So much of my cooking experience was trial and error. I spent a month drinking milk that tasted like water, avoiding it around my rice krispies, essentially playing bobbing for apples. And then I realised that odds are, the lid colours were different than ours. I didn’t have to just buy the light blue lid like I do at home for 2%. I go to college – clearly I’m smart enough to buy milk. So I just figured I’d switch brands and start again. That time it worked great. Still no idea what level of milk I was drinking, but I knew I liked it. That was the important part, right? As for Celsius? The logic behind that was a lot less. . . logical. There’s an XKCD comic that converts everything to metric. Using that, I was able to kind of figure out the math behind the conversion rate and legitimately took a lucky guess. I think I cooked everything at 200º Celsius and just hoped that nothing needed to be at a different temperature. It helped that our oven was a strange size and my cookie tray only fit in sideways.
So here’s my advice to you: explore. Take advantage of the options your city gives you, and watch what the locals do. I got to meet some very fascinating people at the farmers’ market, learn new ways of cooking, and became a better cook for it. I wish my home city had as easily-accessible options as Wellington did, because I thoroughly miss the farmers’ markets and the bakeries. I don’t miss my awkwardly small oven, but I learned a lot about cooking that semester. I got to help make a traditional New Zealand roast dinner, got to play with using fresh ingredients and improving my recipes by doing so. Challenge yourself. Even if it’s just in cooking, you can immerse yourself in a culture fairly easily if you go in the right direction. And, when all else fails, remind yourself that you’re an adult, you can buy dinosaur pasta if you want to, and you can definitely use it to make comfort food!
Chandler Grace is a student at Trinity University at San Antonio and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand.