Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Those little food products you do not always notice

For many years living abroad we would encounter food stuff that reminded us of home but would not be items we would consume or buy at anytime, like SPAM, Nescafé, Salada tea, Marlboro cigarettes, these 4 items are and were famous around the world. Often introduced by armies during an armed conflict like the Korean War (1950-1953) or simply by multinational companies who expanded their markets to foreign countries.

The local population took to them and often saw these products as a luxury. We did not and could not understand why these products had such status. Often there is quite a history behind such products, like SPAM being imported by US troops during the Korean conflict. The Korean population was starving and being able to buy a can of SPAM at the US Army PX was a luxury but only if you had the connections and the money. Later this product took on an aura all of its own and to this day is given in elaborate gift boxes. Imagine doing this here, your friends would think you are joking.

Nescafé has a similar story, at the end of the Second World War in Europe many food staples were simply not available, chocolate, fresh fruit, nylon stockings, cigarettes, coffee. Many countries had a coffee culture going back to the Renaissance when Admiral Christopher Columbus brought it back from the Americas with tobacco, tomatoes, potatoes, oranges and chocolates to name a few native products of the Americas introduced in Europe in the 15th century.

So again the Allies had Nescafé and drank it all the time, the Europeans were curious and envious, quickly a black market was established and Nescafé was available for a price, thus it entered the local life and in countries behind the Iron Curtain, Nescafé became a luxury consumed by the Communist Elite. To this day in countries in the Balkan like Serbia it is still considered chic, though this is changing now with products widely available to all.

In the Middle-East it was Marlboro cigarettes and Benson & Hedges later who dominated the market.
Egypt the largest country and with an important percentage of its population smoking cigarettes there was a huge demand for British or American Tobacco products. Again the elite would set the tone and foreign cigarettes were considered far superior to any local product.

One surprise I had in all my years amongst the Arabs was how popular Johnny Walker Red Label scotch was, only to be outdone by the Black Label brand. I remember in the Sudan whenever we visited Khartoum which was often back in the late 1980's and early 90's everything was paid in cases of scotch. The government was '' officially '' strictly observant of the Sharia.
You needed a curfew pass, you needed some other service from some nice Muslim official
the payment was in Johnny Walker. All Sudanese soldiers at check-points in Khartoum were paid in packages or cartons of cigarettes usually Marlboro, their favorite, God help you if you did not have a pack to give out, they could be very violent. One night a European Consul was badly beaten for refusing to pay the usual bribe.

The joke became that the real name of the Scotch was Johnny Mohamed Walker. I remember one night in Cairo at one of the big supper night clubs at the Meridien Hotel frequented by Saudi Royalty and other Gulf Princes, the scotch would flow. The famous singer and actress Sabah was performing and she would call out to the famous patrons in the audience.
There was next to our table a senior member of the Saudi Royal Family who was enjoying a bottle of Johnny Walker Black label, Sabah asked him how was his friend Johnny. Everyone laughed.

I also remember visiting the Casino at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek, in a Palace built for the opening of the Suez Canal to house Empress Eugénie of France. The casino had tables for Bacarat and Chemin de fer, Roulette etc... it was only opened to foreigners, Egyptians could not get in.
The Gulf Princes would be there every night and play incredible amounts, I remember one Prince loosing one million dollars in 5 minutes at Roulette, I was stunned. There was an elderly Armenian banker who worked for a Swiss Wealth Fund, I think it was UBS. He was hired by the King of Saudi Arabia to watch over his sons, they had a limit on any bets of 2 million dollars a night. They played so badly that the game was over in 30 minutes tops. This old banker gave wonderful parties at his penthouse apartment in Zamalek close to my home.

What one man considers luxury the other will think is bunk.



  1. In the Middle East you're usually given a choice between Turkish/Arabic coffee and Nescafe. Give me the thick, sweetened stuff any time.

    We ended up travelling around Syria with two bottles of Scotch, which we'd been asked to take to our British Council host in the Yemen. But because of passport theft at Damascus Airport we never got to Sanaa. One bottle I gave to a handsome Circassian who travelled with us on the bus from Amman back to Damascus, the other I sold to the man at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo.

  2. Such an interesting post! And hey, I drink Nescafé coffee -- nice to know I've got that in common with the Communist Elite, LOL!

  3. Around Syria with 2 bottles of Scotch, that sounds like a book title or a BBC Travel log.

  4. all hail SPAM !
    Thanks to Monty Python, everyone in this generation knows of it.

    1. I am sure you had SPAM as a child a favourite treat perhaps?

  5. Very interesting post, Larry. Thanks for writing it. I did not know any of this. My mother in law and sister in law go back and forth between New York and Europe quite a bit. They bring us here products we can't easily get that my husband has been using his whole life like Lemsips, HP Brown Sauce, Fairy, Ready Brek Porridge, Weetabix, mushy peas, Mellow Birds, Cullen Skink soup, digestives, and certain teas. They take with them stuff that I guess isn't so easy to get where they go in Russia, Bulgaria, Poland and Italy, like - Skippy, Jiff, Hellmans mayo, Lucky Charms, Kool Aid packets, Double Stuff Oreos, cheap mac n cheese mix in the box, Yoo Hoo, and Funyuns. I think a lot of times it's just fun to try something new, or to have something you don't have a lot. Sometimes like with my husband you get used to a certain thing and you really miss it when you can't get it anymore. But you brought up a whole other aspect of this I had not really gotten before. I can imagine for some people things like Spam and Nescafe like you explained, bring back memories of their parents or grandparents being so excited to bring some into the house. Maybe they want to share those memories with their new families, too. I think that's nice that people want to have those products because it connects them to memories of family and childhood. It doesn't really matter that there's nothing particularly special about Nescafe or whatever. That's not the point.

    Thanks for this post, Larry. xo

    1. I will try to think of other things that I saw abroad and was peculiar to us.