If you’ve ever watched “House Hunters International” on TV, you’ve probably witnessed this scene. A pair of Americans are searching for the right home in a foreign land, but once they start looking, their jaws drop at how small everything is – the home, the living spaces, the closets (if there are any), the bathrooms, kitchens, and outdoor areas (if there are any).
Next, the camera cuts to the real estate agent, who is trying to keep a smile welded on her face while her clients complain, even though you know she’s thinking: Do these bloody Americans honestly believe the rest of the world lives in 2,000-square-foot homes with spacious back yards, and kitchens big enough to park a Toyota in?
Well, that wasn’t a problem for us when we moved to London three-odd years ago. Yes, living spaces and kitchens here are small compared to the States, but we’d dealt with that before. I personally have lived in enough cramped apartments that I can make a five-course meal using a hotplate and a toaster oven.
Since today’s topic is cooking (and eating), I’ll focus only on the kitchen part of the home equation. And for me, the main challenge when it comes to cooking (and eating) in London is that there are some American food staples you just can’t find over here. More on that later.
First, let’s dive into what it’s like to shop for food, store it, and cook it over here.
I’m the home chef here and cook all the meals, though my wife and oldest daughter handle the baking when there’s baking to be done. I started cooking as a young adult through a process of trial-and-error – and there were plenty of errors. I once tried to make a lemon chicken by dumping about five lemons worth of lemon juice on it, and it tasted exactly like lemons. But never mind.
I wanted to learn to cook because I like to eat, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to call out for pizza every night. I later learned a few tricks in various restaurant jobs, but mostly I’m self-taught.
One thing any home cook worth their salt (ha ha!) knows how to do is adapt to the equipment, space and environment. You learn how to get by with less – less counter space, less pantry space, less space in the fridge and freezer, less room in the oven.
We live in a townhouse that is roomy by London standards, but would be considered small by the standards of the average family of four in the States. The kitchen is about eight feet by ten feet. Counter space is limited. The fridge/freezer is maybe six feet tall, and narrow. It looks like the units your great-grandparents probably used a century ago. The freezer still gets frost that you need to scrape out from time to time. Look at your American-sized refrigerator and freezer, and picture it with about half as much room.
We have a compact four-burner electric stove and a smallish, fan-assisted oven. The stove is fine. I know a lot of folks swear by gas stoves, but I’ve never had a problem cooking on an electric one. However, I am still trying to figure out how to use the oven properly. The heat seems to blast much hotter when the fan is on, so it’s easy to set the temps too high. The temps, of course, are in Celsius. I’m more or less guessing most of the time.
We order groceries from a delivery service because we don’t have a car to haul groceries back and forth. There are a couple of small markets a short walk away, but their inventory is limited. I occasionally drop by stores when I’m out biking to pick up an item here and there. But 90 percent of the groceries are ordered online through a service called Ocado, which I sometimes hate, but never mind….
Back in the States, we always kept a vegetable garden in our back yard, and every summer that’s where we got our tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and other veggies. Over here we have a tiny back yard, so you have to garden in pots. I tried it a couple years ago and it didn’t work. Not enough sunlight. So: no homegrown tomatoes, lettuce or cucumbers.
When you order groceries online every week, one of your main priorities is to focus on how much space you have to store everything. That means ordering just enough perishables to get through the week. That can be a real mathematical challenge in a small kitchen with a small fridge and limited pantry space. A whole chicken takes up too much fridge space, so you order small packages of drumsticks or thighs. You order four apples because that’s all the room you have. One package of grapes, one package of cherry tomatoes, two avocados.
Every Thanksgiving we get a small turkey, and the rearranging I have to do to make it fit in the fridge – and then brine it – should earn me an honorary engineering degree.
Large fruits like watermelon are out of the question. Most veggies are frozen except for lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, and the occasional order of cabbage, kale or okra. Do you know how much space a bag of kale takes up in a small refrigerator? Too much, that’s how much.
Refrigerator condiments are kept to a minimum: two salad dressings, two small bottles of wine for cooking, one small bottle of yellow mustard, one small bottle of mayonnaise, one small bottle of lemon juice. I also keep hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce in the fridge, though I probably don’t need to.
You have to limit your quantities of milk, juice, eggs, cheese and butter in ways you simply didn’t think about back in the U.S. If you order pizza, you better eat most of it that day because you just don’t have room to refrigerate more than a few slices at a time.
Leftovers are a must because you can’t keep a lot of ingredients around to make something different every night. Cook a meal nice, serve it up twice. This means a lot of easily reheatable stews, soups, pasta, bean dishes (cassoulet, lentil curry), and rice dishes (jambalaya, arroz con pollo).
Did I mention that most London homes don’t have air conditioning? Well, they don’t. Ours doesn’t, though we did buy a couple of small portable A/C units where you shove a hose out the window to let the condensation escape. It makes the hot days bearable – and there are more hot days during the summer than you might expect. This means you don’t use the oven very much during the summer, because the combination of its heat and your small, un-air-conditioned kitchen make the atmosphere positively Saharan.
So, the ingredients. The food you buy here is healthier than back in the States, but not always as tasty. Meats tend to be very lean, without the coronary-inducing fat and marbling that make it so delicious back in the USA. Fruits and veggies are probably safer because many European countries shy away from toxic chemicals and genetically modified crops. Also, they are not big on adding red dyes or carcinogens to processed foods on this side of the world.
This is all a positive because you maybe don’t worry as much about getting foodborne illnesses, or growing a second head. In terms of cooking and kitchen work, though, it takes some adapting.
Wholegrain bread here will grow mold a lot sooner than back in the States. I guess that’s because it’s not as filled up with preservatives. I usually put a loaf in the fridge or freezer as soon as it arrives and serve it as needed. You have to account for that in terms of fridge/freezer space.
I stopped buying steaks here a long time ago. The meat is too lean and tasteless unless you go to a butcher, which I haven’t done. We only have a little hibachi-type grill in the backyard, anyway, that I use maybe a dozen times during the warm months.
Now, about those missing American staples that you can’t find over here unless you look really, really hard. There’s a USA food store in London that imports certain American goodies, but its selection can be hit and miss, and you gotta be careful about the expiration date. They might deliver a box of Quaker Instant Grits that expires in two weeks.
Here’s a list of different foods and beverages you can’t find over here – or you have to work really hard to find – and that I personally miss the most:
Tamales, enchiladas, chiles rellenos: Mexican cuisine is probably my favorite – it’s a tight race with Chinese – and the lack of good Mexican restaurants in London is a major gripe among many American expats. There’s one really good one we’ve found – Mestizo – and one chain that’s okay (Wahaca). Those are the only two we’ve found that serve enchiladas, and Mestizo is the only one that serves tamales. Nobody seems to serve chiles rellenos. We have found a Texas-born woman here who makes delicious homemade tamales that she packs in dry ice and ships to your front door, which is a Godsend (Tex-Deb Tamales, here’s her Facebook link. Order them!) I’ve tried making homemade enchiladas. They’re not bad, but not great either.
Lemonade: What they call “lemonade” here is basically what we call Sprite back home. I order Crystal Light lemonade mix from Amazon, or we have it mailed in care packages from back home.
Lima beans: Can’t find them here. Instead, Brits eat something called broad beans, which don’t taste nearly as good as lima beans, and have a weird mushy texture that gives me nightmares. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss lima beans.
Biscuits: Technically, they have “biscuits” here, but they are what we call “cookies” back home. I have found one grocery in London – Panzer’s in St. John’s Wood, which caters to expats – that sells biscuit mix. I have no desire to make them from scratch.
Grits: The USA Food Store sells the instant version, but they don’t always have it in stock. Panzer’s sometimes carries instant grits, but they sell out fast.
Canned green beans: Only one grocery chain here seems to carry these on their shelves. I know, fresh are better than canned, but when you have limited fridge space, canned comes in handy.
Kielbasa: The Brits love their sausages – as long as they are Brit-style bangers. I haven’t been able to find much beyond that – no kielbasa, no Italian sausage, no chorizo. They don’t even seem to sell bologna here.
Frito’s: Corn chips were my kryptonite back home. Some stores do carry Frito’s brands imported from Canada and South Africa, where the tastes run a little different. I have yet to find the U.S.-style barbecue Frito’s I sometimes crave, but probably don’t need to indulge in too often.
Ranch dressing: For some reason, the Brits are not into ranch dressing. You can’t find it at the restaurants. The only brand I’ve seen on any chain grocery shelves is Newman’s Own, and no thanks. You can find Hidden Valley at the USA Store and Panzer’s – sometimes.
Lance crackers: I grew up not too far from a Lance plant in Charlotte, and the aroma was seriously delish (seriously). Alas, this not a Toastchee country, or a Nipchee country, or even a saltine country.
Frozen okra: Many groceries don’t even carry fresh okra, and I have yet to find frozen okra, which I used to always keep on hand back in the USA.
Texas Pete’s hot sauce: Being a native Southerner, I put hot sauce on just about everything. Texas Pete’s was my weapon of choice back home. You can buy Frank’s Hot Sauce here, which I keep at home; and Tabasco, which I don’t.
Of course, there are some things you can find here that you can’t back in the States. You can’t find really good British pub food in the USA, at least in the places I’ve lived. You can’t find a wide variety of excellent Indian snacks in the U.S. unless you visit a specialty Indian store.
The Asian restaurants in London – Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Middle Eastern – are much better than those in the USA, in my opinion. You see more African restaurants in London than you do back home, but maybe that’s not the case in the rest of the UK.
But….you don’t have nearly as many Mexican, Central American or Peruvian restaurants on this side of the pond. Decent barbecue joints are few and far between, though there are a couple. Vegan and vegetarian choices? It’s probably a wash.
Finally, it’s surprising to me that you don’t see as many Eurocentric restaurants as you might expect. There seem to be plenty of French, Italian, Greek, Turkish and Spanish choices. But I thought you’d find more restaurants that cater to other cuisines on the continent, like German, Swedish, Finnish, Dutch, Austrian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Polish, Croatian, etc. Also surprising: You don’t see that many Jamaican or Caribbean restaurants, even though London has a huge population of Jamaican and Caribbean people.
All of which I would trade for a plate of tamales, enchiladas and chiles rellenos right down the block. Are you listening, London?