I am either really naive or I had a very good upbringing – or both – because I never really stopped to think what I was eating until I had to start paying for it and preparing it myself. Actually, come to think of it, since I came out of a big household, I also never tasted sour milk until I lived alone.
So when I started travelling and living abroad, I was in for a surprise. Firstly, there were the things I had never eaten before. Daunting and exciting at the same time. Spoiler: blue Fanta and seaweed cookies are both equally revolting. But going to a local market and trying fruit is to this day one of my favorite things to do in a new country. Guava in Martinique, dragon fruit in China, different kinds of mango in Tanzania. I realize these things are available in Carrefour Belgium these days but they were not when I lived there. Besides, having a banana in a tropical country without it having been shipped on a boat, is a totally different experience. And I have to admit I never really stopped to consider that there are different types and varieties unknown to me of a product that I knew in only one version. For years, I tried to make real Belgian fries in Africa, but the potatoes are just not the same.
It was only when an engineer friend of my husband came to visit, that I also became aware of labels. He asked us questions such as “does this milk have the same amount of magnesium? are there additives in the yoghurt?” I had no clue. He gave me awareness 101, I started paying a bit of attention. Do you know how much sugar there is in ketchup? Or in tonic for that matter? In Africa, you have the added complication that a product can just stop being imported, or a container doesn’t arrive, and you have to buy what is available so reading labels is not a bad habit. And I started buying my milk and yoghurt fresh from the farm. Still not sure if that was a good decision but I am sure that the opinions about that will change per decade or person you ask.
So when I arrived in Chile, I made rookie mistake number one: I thought I knew things. Ha! It was totally back to the drawing board, getting used to everything again, and I do not just mean I was trying to find my favorite brand of coffee. But it was humbling and that is always good. It was after I accidentally bought honey that was not honey, that I started reading labels again. I of course had to look up some words in Spanish, you do not learn what ‘eneldo’ is in Spanish class. Thank god for scientific names and Latin. I very deliberately stay away from everything that says aspartame for example. (Chileans seem to love sweet.) We have been doing this for 2 months now and I still do not have many favorite products. And if you think that global brands are the same everywhere, guess again, even Coke was different in Tanzania. The girls have started a process of trial and error with school snacks. Notes on where we bought what and how high they rate it, are being made. But discoveries are made too. And that is what it is all about, no?