Cranberry Salad Without the Cranberries…(and Other Cooking Misadventures)

by Marilyn on October 9, 2015


I was introduced one time in Cairo as “This is Marilyn. She DOES things with the food here.” The person I was introduced to looked at me in holy awe. “You can DO things with the food here? How?”

To me, Cairo was a thriving metropolis that had cheese. Doing things with the food in Cairo was easy. It’s all perspective. When you’re straight out of Katy, Texas and you enter the developing world, cooking can be a shock. In my case, I’d grown up with all manner of substitutions and learned early in life that cooking and baking were about experimenting.

In a group of expatriates or missionaries it doesn’t take long before you begin sharing “cooking” stories. From marinating meat for a week in CocaCola so you can chew it, to figuring out how to make chocolate chips (more likely chunks) out of local chocolate, the stories abound. We spend hours figuring out, and passing around, substitutions for ingredients common in our passport countries. Some people have food shipments and commissary privileges, and I have been the recipient of their generosity many times. But the rest of the time, it’s us and the local market.

One time my friend Betsy invited someone who worked for the US Embassy to her home for Thanksgiving. He called up to see if he could bring anything. She replied that if there was a favorite dish that he would want, then he could feel free to make it. Yes, indeed he did and he would. His favorite dish was a cranberry-orange salad. Betsy was over the moon. Cranberries! Real cranberries. She too had a recipe, but while in Egypt it was the joke that you made cranberry orange salad without the cranberries. Oranges were ubiquitous and delicious, while cranberries hadn’t made their way from the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts to the dusty streets of Cairo.

On Thanksgiving Day, the man showed up empty handed. Trying to hide her disappointment, Betsy welcomed him in her characteristically gracious manner. “About that salad….,” he said, apologetically. “I would have made it, but there were no oranges in the commissary.” Betsy took a deep breath. What she wanted to say was “You idiot! Every street corner has people selling oranges! The oranges in Egypt are the best! Why don’t you look around you!” But instead she just said “No problem! Welcome!”

Cookbooks make the problem worse. Too often they are so western specific that you’re left with a useless book adding insult to something that can already be difficult.

Because humor aside, we want to create home and belonging for our families. Cooking is a time-honored way of doing this. When we are stripped of all our abilities, from language to creating a home to cooking for our families, it takes its toll on us.

It’s into this conversation that I bring Rachel Pieh Jones. Two years ago, my daughter handed me a present. It was a cookbook called  Djiboutilicious. In  the expat world of connections, Rachel had gone to New York and stayed with a college student. It turned out that she was one of my daughter’s college friends. The cookbook traveled from Djibouti to Boston via New York and sits with pride in my kitchen. As someone who grew up in Pakistan, this book is a practical taste of ‘home.’ And for you at A Life Overseas – it may just be a game changer.

Because for many, making a cake without a box mix is a first time experience. Creating sauces, desserts, sweet breads, and pickles just doesn’t happen…. because we don’t know how.

But Djiboutilicious does! And now, it’s in electronic format as an E-Book. Here is what others have said about Djiboutilicious:

How do you cook in a country with no jars of Ragu or packaged cake mixes? The first time someone handed me a tomato in Somaliland and asked me to make spaghetti sauce, I was at a total loss. Popcorn without a microwave? Were such wonders even possible?

They certainly are and hundreds of chefs have proven it, using Djiboutilicious.

And now, even if you live in a country without reliable postal service, you can get a copy of Djiboutilicious.

“Djiboutilicious has become my go to cookbook in Dji – and I know that I can find most of the ingredients here,” Paula P.

“Djiboutilicious is my go to book when I want to cook something I know is truly homemade. No, “add a can of this” or a “package of that.” All ingredients can usually be found in my kitchen or just around the corner at the dukaan (store),” Jess D.

The first three people who comment on this blog, will get this cookbook FREE! Yes, you heard that right! I will connect with you and have it delivered to your Kindle or other E-book thingy today.

Part of being called to another place is creating a home within that place. It’s not only important to us, it’s important to God. Yes, souls are more important, but more souls have been saved through offering hospitality through tea and cake then we will ever know.

You can purchase Djiboutilicous  here :

Or here:

And please, will you share your cooking misadventures and substitutions with us in the comments? We would love to hear!

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Ashley R

    I would love a copy of this! I’m always looking for ways to feed my four growing boys here in Asia. While we have access to a lot of imported comforts, they aren’t cheap. So I try to cook with what I can get locally as much as possible. I’m so thankful for cheap and delicious and varied fruits and veggies here. And I’m thankful I started cooking from scratch way before we moved overseas. Also, my husband has perfected stovetop popcorn, which is the only kind I like to eat. Thanks for making this available!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      You got it Ashley! So happy you came by. Message me with your kindle info and I will get this to you! And Happy Cooking!

  • Bought it (haven’t figured out to download it win our SLOW internet that is quirky)! Here in Zambia we can find almost anything, but much of it at a high price. I have always cooked with whole foods and from scratch, but right now the lack of power is killing me!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I sure hope you can work out how to download it! Let me know if you have more trouble. More and more things have become available in Djibouti but at that really high price. Plus, we’ve learned that from scratch things just taste so much better.

  • Rachel Kahindi

    Exactly the kind of cooking I do in Kenya.

  • Angela Lawrence

    This aspect of “doing things” with the food in our new culture is actually the most exciting part for me. Over the years, I have become quite the foodie and I went through a make it yourself phase that I’m beginning to see as divine intervention for our home life overseas!

  • Becca

    This is awesome! I live in Central Europe, and we do have access to write a few foods-at a price. But who wants to pay almost $15 for a small box of bisquick?

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I remember paying $11 for cornflakes…..soooo sadddddd! But sometimes so necessary. Also picking up a Snickers bar from the ground because it had fallen. Ayaiyayayayai! Also – congratulations! Send me your info and I’ll get that cookbook to you!

  • Jen

    This sounds amazing. I am often frustrated by the “overseas” cookbooks that tell me to add cans of something or use a constantly impossible to find ingredient in many recipes. I will have to get a copy of this!

  • Deborah

    Oh, my, that story about the embassy guy who couldn’t find oranges in Cairo … I feel so embarrassed on his behalf! I’m an embassy wife, and Cairo was our first post. I was so blessed to immediately find friends who were associated with the embassy, who could walk me through all the things I could get with our commissary and mail privileges, and also to immediately find friends who were NOT associated with the embassy, who I knew I could call up and say that I needed a certain ingredient, and they could tell me if it was available, where it was available, how much it cost, and what substitute I could try instead. Those substitutions have served me well in and beyond Cairo (at posts where I didn’t have access to a commissary either)!

    But it’s funny sometimes the things that aren’t available that we don’t think about. We hosted a Bible study group in our apartment in Cairo, and I made a vegetable platter along with a few other snacks. I don’t even like celery, but I figured that vegetable platters always have celery, so I should include some. It disappeared almost immediately–much faster than the sweet treats I’d made–and I was asked by almost every woman there where I’d found it. I was kind of embarrassed to admit that it had come from the commissary and watch their faces fall as they realized that it still wasn’t available on the local economy. Needless to say, I started volunteering vegetable platters on a regular basis.

    But some things are very clear. I’ll never forget the white elephant gift exchange our Bible study group had one Christmas … we were supposed to bring 3 items fulfilling different criteria. For two of them, we brought frozen pork and Little Debbie cakes from the commissary. They were the most stolen items under that tree that year! (I wish we’d thought to buy a lot and make it a surprise Christmas gift to everyone there.)

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I LOVE this comment. So many memories of our friends with commissary privileges that gave so generously!! I wish we’d known each other in Cairo.

      • Deborah

        I wish so, too! I think I remember seeing somewhere the dates that you were there, though, and there may not have been any overlap. We were there from June 2008 until June 2011.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I love this comment too, so good to hear from an embassy wife – and I have, many times, gobbled up that kind of ‘celery’ food and really feel thankful for those times.

      • Deborah

        We’ve always been grateful for the opportunities we’ve had to share. It can be hard, sometimes, because we want to share our privileges as much as we’re able within the rules, but we don’t want to lord them over anyone or cause resentment. It’s a balancing act.

  • Wilma Brown

    I made lasagne in Pakistan by making very thin pancakes and layering them with the sauce. I also remember using lemon juice to “sour’ the buffalo milk then striking the results through a cloth to make cream cheese for a cheesecake. I think it all tasted pretty ok.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      That sounds amazing! I did the lemon juice thing as well and the cheesecake was delicious.

  • Cathy Marshall

    Ah, what fun! Brought back memories of the Maadi Women’s Guild cookbooks. Loved those. I had a friend whose husband worked for NAMRU. They had commissary privileges and only ate commissary food. We introduced her to the Happy Dinner Man. She bought his delicious meat and cooked it beautifully but her husband was “afraid” to eat it. So they threw it out. So sad.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Still have that one 🙂

  • Miriam

    When living in rural Africa, two hours away from the nearest supermarket, my favourite times were the weekly potluck meals with other expats, including some who had lived there for decades. It was soooo inspiring to see what they could create out of the few things that were available! It gave me lots of ideas of things I could cook there.
    Now I’m somewhere in Asia. Recently I saw a recipe of apple-pumpkin crumble bar and thought immediately: ‘yes, something I can make here because we have an abundance of pumpkins and apples this season’, but then I scrolled down to the ingredients list and saw that about half of it I can’t get here… (but to be honest, many I also wouldn’t find in my European home country because they were ‘American’ ingredients…)

    That also brings me to a question for Rachel. When I hardly ever cook with brown suger, never use barbecue sauce, and don’t even know what Ragu or Bisquick is, how useful would the cookbook be for me? Ar the recipes more ‘American’ or international?

  • Donna

    I will try to get the book on my own (seeing as so many have already commented!), but after 17 years here in Kyiv, I can definitely relate! Yes, we are in a big city (prompting one of my children to comment years ago that we weren’t real missionaries :-/ ), but as a native Texan – also from Houston/Katy, Texas! – there are just things about cooking from Texas that are not available here. I still bring back seasoning for tacos, enchiladas, chili, as well as maple flavoring, Karo syrup and pecans for Thanksgiving, and whatever else I can persuade my practical side to allow into the luggage! I still haven’t found a way to do brisket though ;-).

  • Julie

    I’d love a copy of this cookbook. Oaxaca, Mexico has more and more selection, but there are still things I miss.

  • Tracey D

    This is great! I will check it out! And for all of you living in countries with mangos—a fellow missionary told me that green mangos make a close substitute for apples. I have some chopped up in my freezer waiting to be turned into pie. . . .

  • Anna Wegner

    I knew how to cook, and I mostly cooked from scratch in the US. But moving to Congo, it was a whole new ball game, and a pretty steep learning curve. I’ve learned to cook more from available ingredients than from recipes. Now even when I’m in the US, I use recipes less, and random ideas and ingredients more.

  • Lorraine Green

    More with Less by Longacre is a classic cookbook from the Mennonite community of a generation ago, and will prove very helpful in cooking without prefab food.—Less-Cookbook-World-Community/dp/083619263X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1445944827&sr=1-1&keywords=More+with+Less

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