Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Far-flung foods Irish expats have grown to love

From west Canada to east China, six Irish emigrants reveal how their tastes and diets have changed, from close encounters with pig brains to breakfast mangoes from the back garden

Fri, Nov 22, 2013, 00:00


Ciara Kenny

DONAL KEENAN (36) Solicitor, Gold Coast, Australia

My eating habits have changed drastically since I arrived in Sydney in 2004. I haven’t had a steak in months, or sausages for over a year. They’re not the same in Australia anyway.

I feel healthier than ever, and more energetic. The obsession with fitness and beauty, even if only skin-deep, dominates, and a healthy diet feeds into that. I have been training for triathlons for the past three years and surf almost every day.

There’s a strong movement on the Gold Coast around a raw eating philosophy, and a lot of the cafes offer that kind of food now. There’s a huge organic food market near us, with stalls selling everything from wheatgrass shots to homemade muesli.

My girlfriend has had a huge influence on my diet. I was sceptical of raw food at first, but she started making dishes from recipes she found online and I realised they taste really good. And make you feel good too.

I was home for a holiday last year and had been really looking forward to the Irish food I missed. It was great for the first few days, but after a week I started feeling really sluggish and unhealthy.

Donal with wheatgrass to be squeezed into juice shots, while his girlfriend Erin holds a plate of "raw" cookies made from cashews, dried fruit and rasberries.


JUDITH GANNON (28) Copywriter, Toronto

Since moving here last year I’ve picked up a few new food habits. Poutine, a really Canadian dish of chips covered in gravy and cheese curds, sounded horrible at first. Now I can’t get enough of it.

Most Canadian restaurants are mid-range, with similar menus, serving fries with everything. It is harder to find a fancy restaurant serving smaller portions of nicer food. However, there are a lot more ethnic places here – from Greek to Ethiopian – than there would be in Dublin.

My stomach has definitely got bigger to adapt to North American portions, much to my dismay. I have joined a gym and have managed to avoid putting on weight, but it is hard work. I have friends who have been here a bit longer than me and the clothes they brought from home don’t fit any more.

Myself and my boyfriend have been receiving a constant supply of crisps, chocolate and tea from Ireland since we arrived. But you aren’t allowed to bring meat in, so I’m really looking forward to a good fry when we’re back home for Christmas, with Irish brown bread.

Judith Gannon, Toronto

Judith's goodies sent from home

DANNY HAMILTON (34) Tour guide and bricklayer, Vancouver

Canadians, especially on the west coast, are so aware of what they are eating and the importance of eating organic, locally sourced foods. I used to laugh this off as hippy nonsense, but now I see the value in it.

In Ireland my eating habits were very predictable: cereal for breakfast, a sandwich, breakfast roll or chicken fillet roll for lunch and a meat and two veg for dinner. I have always been fairly active and looked reasonably healthy, so didn’t think I needed to change.

My girlfriend is the main reason behind the turnaround in my eating habits, and she is very proud on how far I have come since moving here six months ago. I still have cereal, but a healthier granola than the sugary ones at home, with almond milk instead of whole milk. I have a salad for lunch, most often with kale or quinoa, and for dinner it is no longer compulsory to have dead animal every day. This summer we started our own vegetable garden. I hadn’t even heard of half the things we now grow, but the thrill of eating something that you grow yourself is so worth it.

Coming from Ireland, and having worked on building sites for years, I must be unrecognisable to the man I was but I feel so much better in myself. I miss the odd greasy fry, but I would not change a thing.

Danny Hamilton with his girlfriend in Vancouver

JASON DOWNING (39) Computer supply chain manager, Miami

All of Latin America is represented in the shops and restaurants here: Caribbean, Mexican, Colombian, and Brazilian, with Cuban probably the most popular.

In a typical week, I have rice and fish or chicken almost every day, with fried plantains, which is like banana, or black beans, and at least one good Argentinian or Brazilian parrilla, a mix of grilled meats. Hot chilli or jalapeño peppers and a slice of lime are now my standard condiments instead of salt and pepper or ketchup.

I eat a lot of mangoes in the morning and avocados in a salad in the evenings, as I have trees with both in the back garden. I have also started a herb and vegetable garden. I have stopped drinking tea, as coffee is much more common here, and rarely eat bread or potatoes. Dubliner cheese and Kerrygold butter are available in the local supermarket, so I still buy those every week.

Jason Downing, Miami

Fried fish and fried plantains: A typical dinner for Jason Downing in Miami

Jason Downing's fruit bowl, Miami

JOHN BRACKEN (36) Teacher at the British College, Shanghai

The average expat in Shanghai can afford to eat out about three to four times a week, if they mix it up between decent eateries and little hole-in-the-wall places. You can get a reasonable meal for two with plenty of dishes at a nice restaurant for about €20. Food isn’t served on a dinner plate – instead you order a number of dishes and eat some of each, sharing with your partner.

Dining on the street or at hole-in-the-wall places is a lot more relaxed than in formal restaurants, but the crescendo of unfettered slurping, burping, and often farting that surrounds you can grate the nerves.

Sichuan spicy dishes can still cause me to sweat a lot, but I keep coming back to them. A lot of people who get bitten by the spice bug just can’t get enough. When you start eating spicy food for breakfast, as I do, you know you’re hooked.

Eating pig brains for the first time was a cringe-worthy experience, but I went through with it. After a while, you can trick yourself into thinking it’s tofu.

I’ve learned how to cook sweet and sour dishes; egg fried rice; dan bing, which is a Taiwanese-style filled pancake; and a few other dishes. Ingredients are plentiful and usually cheap, although most Chinese kitchens don’t have ovens, which can be limiting.

A roadside stall selling steamed baozi, a stuffed dough ball served for breakfast, Shanghai

JENNY REILLY (40) Primary school teacher, Madrid

I moved to Madrid 2½ years ago and met my husband, who is half Irish and half Spanish, three nights later. He is a foodie and we eat out often, a lot more than we would in Ireland.

Although many of the restaurants are similarly priced to Ireland, the quality of ingredients is much better. The meats and cheeses are just amazing, and the tomatoes in salads are always delicious.

I miss Irish dairy produce because the milk and cream here is UHT. The quality of beef isn’t as good, so I’d often pay more to buy Irish beef at El Corte Inglés. I don’t really like eating white-flour products so I make my own brown bread all the time.

Generally I eat a lot more healthily in Spain; a lot more salads and fish, and I never eat potatoes any more. The Spanish use olive oil, not butter, when cooking, which feels healthier and tastes less heavy.

Fruit and vegetables on display at the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid

Jenny Reilly with husband Enrique Biel Gleeson at their favourite tapas restaurant in Madrid