The University of Iowa

Food in a new country: Tips for adjusting

August 30th, 2016

Students and community members learn how to cook in a Korean Cooking Class

Food is life.  Food is culture.  Food is home.  It’s not until we’re away from home that we realize how important food is to our well-being.  But not just any food.  The food we know.  Being in a foreign country brings a great deal of excitement when it comes to trying new foods and discovering the culture behind them. But it’s not long until we may start to miss the foods we know and love.  Food has the power to cure us, and longing for your favorite treats can actually make some homesick. 

In the U.S. we call certain dishes “comfort food.”  This reflects the feeling of ease, warmth, and satisfaction certain dishes make us feel.  Some dishes remind us of family.  Maybe it’s a favorite soup that your mom used to make when you were home sick from school that makes you feel warm inside.  Maybe it’s the specific grain of rice from your country, a staple at every meal, that makes you feel satisfied.  It could be candy you can’t get anywhere but home.  Whatever it is, there is no denying you don’t realize how much you need it until you can’t have it. 

International students may discover they can’t find their comfort foods in Iowa.  If you don’t know how to cook, getting the food you want can be even harder to find. 

If you’re new to the U.S., Iowa, or if you’ve been here a while and can’t seem to enjoy the food you find, here are a few tips to help you get a taste of home, or something close to it.

1. Cook at Home

So this is easier said than done.  If you can cook there are actually several grocery stores in Iowa City where you may be able to find ingredients from your country.   Chong’s, Bai Jia, and Asian Market are good choices for Asian and African ingredients.  La Regia has a nice carnicería and Mexican grocery for Latino foods.  Also, check out Taj International Food for Indian ingredients. 

If you don’t know how to cook, you can take classes at the New Pioneer Food Co-Op.  This is a good activity for learning a new skill and getting to know some Iowans.

2. Expand Your Horizons  

If you’re a picky eater it may take some bravery but, if you get up the courage, try other local ethnic foods.  Ask around and maybe you’ll find something new to you. 

If you have a car or have a friend with a car, travel to some of the small towns surrounding Iowa City.  There, you may find some great spots mostly visited by the locals. 

I’ve been in Iowa City for just over three years now and only recently found a great microbrewery in Kalona. It took someone else to say, “Trust me, it’s good,” before I actually gave it a shot.  The menu and the atmosphere was a pleasant surprise.  At first I was unwilling to try it, but after opening up my mind, I found I really liked it.

3. Create Community

If you were not aware already, the University has cultural- and interest-based communities called student organizations, which may help you find your own community beyond your classmates. 

Hosting a dinner party with your comfort foods is a great way to share your culture with American students and share comfort foods with those from your own country.  Either way, eat together, make a new family, and discover a new welcoming community.

Initiate dinner get-togethers at local restaurants.  If you can set up a group dinner with some of your classmates from the area, they might just lead you to a new favorite spot.   One trick I learned is to be, how we might say, “laid-back” about the invite.  This makes the invite more casual and takes the pressure off making new friends. 

I just say, “Hey, I’m going to be at this place at this time.  You should come! If you can’t, that’s cool too.”

4. Manage Expectations

Look, things just are not going to be what you might expect them to be.  For example, if you’re from Korea, Korean food here won’t be the same.  Or at least, it is highly unlikely to be what you expect.  The ingredients, the price, the taste, will be targeted at American customers. 

If you know this going into a restaurant, you might be less likely to be disappointed.  Managing your expectations and thinking about that before you walk into it can help you feel better about the foods that are available. 

6.  Swallow your Pride

Call Mom, call Dad, and ask them to send a care package full of your favorite treats.  “Swallowing your pride” means saying to yourself, “It’s okay to ask for help.”  But it also means eating the foods you are proud to call your own.  This can help you have some of your comfort foods while you are working on all the other suggestions above.

With all of these suggestions in mind, understand that it is not easy. 

Coming to a new and unfamiliar country is tough.  For the most part, international students need to work harder because of language, social, family, and homesickness issues.  Food is one of those things you may not immediately see as important, but it surely is.

This won’t solve all of your problems, but these tips could help you cope with some of the difficulties related to being an international student.  And who knows, you may find yourself back in your home country one day, thinking, “These hotdogs are nothing like real Chicago dogs!  I miss American food!”  Well, maybe not, but you might just find some new comfort foods while you’re here.

Looking for more information on adjusting to Iowa life? Visit our community, academic & cultural resources page for more information.