When we first moved to China oodles of years ago, it felt like all my cooking skills evaporated. Or rather, that everything I had learned to cook so far in my life was no longer applicable in the new culinary landscape. Serving spaghetti & meatballs with a salad went from being a quick, cheap dinner to an expensive, laborious meal. Whipping up a batch of homemade cookies went from something you did after dinner to a process that took months.

So, I re-learned how to cook. Over the years, I figured out what I could make with the local ingredients I had access to. Part of that education was learning to make many foods from scratch that we would previously have purchased ready-made at the store.

Here are some of the first things we learned to make from scratch. (Can you tell that we were missing baked goods and dairy products just a smidge??)

1. Soft pretzels

These were lumped with Icees and nacho cheese sauce in my mind: food-like products that magically appear at malls and school fairs everywhere, not foods one could actually make at home. What joy to know you can! (The nacho cheese sauce is another story.) These things are SO good straight from your own oven.

Sally’s Baking Addiction: Easy Homemade Soft Pretzels

2. Bagels

Like soft pretzels, bagels get their unique outer coating from a dip in a stovetop jacuzzi before baking. Making bagels requires a lot of effort and the process destroys a small kitchen, but yes, it’s worth it if you are craving some chewy goodness.

King Arthur Flour: Bagel Recipe

3. Donuts

We had better luck sticking with donut holes in a small Chinese kitchen rather than trying for full size donuts, but they are still an outstanding special treat.

Sugar Spun Run: Donut Holes (Add a bit of nutmeg to the dough if you have it. It gives it more of an authentic old-fashioned donut taste.)

4. Tortillas, Pitas, Chapati, Naan, Roti…

Flatbreads of all sorts became staples for us. These were things I would never have thought to make myself in the States because I could just buy them. These are great even when you don’t have an oven, or your “glorified Easy-Bake” is being used for something else. I won’t post recipes for all of these. Let the Internet do its magic and find you a good recipe for whichever flatbread you’d like to try making. 

5. Yogurt

It’s no shocker that yogurt can be made at home. The surprise for me was that you don’t need an “As Seen on TV” yogurt making machine or packaged powder starter to do it. This is such a help in China where all the yogurt is very thin and very sweet. You can control the thickness and sweetness when you make it yourself. The recipe below says to drain off liquid for thicker yogurt, but you can also add milk powder to the milk before stirring in the starter.

Just FYI, your microwave makes a great overnight incubator because it is well insulated. Don’t run it, just set your yogurt in and close the door. In the morning, you will have fresh yogurt for breakfast! (But it will be warm, which might be gaggy to members of your family. Just giving you fair warning.)

The Kitchn’s Cooking Lessons: How to Make Yogurt at Home

6. Ricotta/Paneer

If you want to shoot straight up to Swankypants Foodie level, tell your friends that you make your own ricotta and paneer cheeses at home. (Well, technically you have to also actually make them, not just tell people you do, but YKWIM.) You lose some points with the Foodies if you use a microwave rather than the stovetop, but I will still be your friend. Pro expat tip: you do not need actual cheesecloth. You can use a tea towel (the flat woven kitchen towel that some people call a dish towel, not the fuzzy, fluffy towel that others call a dish towel. Geez, English, get your act together!!) for the straining part of the process.

Food Lab: Fresh Ricotta in Five Minutes or Less

Indian Healthy Recipes: How to Make Paneer at Home

7. Sour cream

In the U.S., there’s not much reason to make sour cream at home because it’s just as cheap (cheaper?) to buy it pre-made in tubs. In China, you’re gonna need to DIY. But it’s the easiest thing on this list. Not even gonna post a link because it’s so simple.

Mix 1 cup of heavy/whipping cream with 1/4 cup of white vinegar. Let it sit for a few minutes (depends on how hot/humid your kitchen is), then stir. Voila! If you want to use metric measurements or need a different quantity of sour cream, simply use 1:4 ratio of vinegar to cream.

8. Taco sauce

I had previously made many different types of homemade salsas but I had never attempted taco sauce/hot sauce. China forced me to step into that final frontier. Don’t laugh, but my favorite recipe was this one based on Taco Bell Mild. Be sure to avoid that one kind of canned tomato paste in China that turns everything it touches hot pink. *shudder* There is absolutely nothing spicy in this recipe, so if you 不怕辣 or 怕不辣, add in some hot pepper (fresh, dried, powdered, whatever) to increase the heat.

And can I be totally honest? I rarely followed this recipe correctly because my spice cabinet is very basic in China. Usually I only put in the garlic powder and cumin, and it still tasted close to the real thing. Or at least, waaaaayyyy better than ketchup on tacos. Let’s hear it for lowered expectations!

CopyKat: Taco Bell Taco Sauce

Bonus Round

To end, I have to share one of the three cookbooks that were lifesavers for living overseas. This one is More With Less, and if you run in certain circles, everyone will talk lovingly about this cookbook and show you their copy which is probably covered in stains and falling apart. Chances are, theirs has the 1970s era cover rather than this hip, new updated one:

Unlike a lot of cookbooks you might buy in your home country, this one does not assume you have access to a huge supermarket with premade things. There are gobs of from-scratch recipes in here. One that I made over and over and over was Essie’s Fruit Cobbler. I made it with whatever fruit was in season and cheap. Mangoes, yangmei, the gift box of apples we got from our university for Mid-Autumn Festival, anything. Curious to see if this cookbook will be helpful for you, too? Click the picture to view the table of contents and other details. See if you’d like to try it out! (Since it’s an affiliate link, if you end up buying it, Amazon will contribute a few kuai to my website expenses. Yeehaw!)

For some of you, the fact that you can make things like the above foods at home is no big revelation. You probably have kombucha on the counter, granola baking in the oven, and a pan of mushrooms growing in compost under your bed. Good on you!

But maybe this will be helpful to some of you who have come to adulthood relying on boxed mac & cheese or pre-made burger patties as mealtime staples and are now facing a whole new world.

And now I would love to hear your experience! What things have you learned to make from scratch while living overseas? Share in the comments! We’d all benefit from some good ideas for overseas cooking.

Hungry for more?

Yes, please!


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