Cooking outside the United States looks a bit different. One expat wrote about how she hates your big American kitchen. Another compared expat kitchens with the ultra-modern, totally decked-out, restaurant-caliber American kitchen. Look around at your kitchen and I’ll tell you about mine and make a confession.


My Djiboutian kitchen is roughly 5X7 feet. This means I can reach any spice or knife or bowl with a simple twist or, at most, two medium-sized steps. There is a spice shelf because my husband loves me and built one. There are no cupboards because he doesn’t love me that much. Okay, the real reason there are no cupboards is because there just aren’t.

I have a one-sided sink with no drain stopper. My house helper or I wash dishes in a big red Tupperware bowl and rinse them in the sink. They dry either on the counter or on the carpet in the living room under the ceiling fan. I have one faucet with one handle and it always runs at one temperature. Cold in the winter, hot in the summer. And always slightly salty.

Open counter space is about two and a half feet long. Just long enough to bake cookies with one kid on the counter. Just long enough to roll out cinnamon buns. Just short enough to make sure the only appliances we have are appliances we use. Hot water pot, toaster, bread machine, blender (from my grandpa’s kitchen), and a voltage regulator. A little too short to hold all our dirty dishes if I get lazy on the days our house helper doesn’t come.

For six years I used a narrow, European-style stove and oven that had a single functioning burner. Six. Years. One. Burner.

Now I have a lovely stove with four burners and an oven wide enough for two cookie sheets at the same time. Some people might think granite countertops or heated floor tiles or cathedral-style ceilings or subzero freezers are luxury. I’m telling you, four burners and two cookie sheets is luxury.


The fridge is propped up on scraps of cardboard to keep it level and has been this way since the day we bought it brand new. Either the floor is crooked or Italy ships it’s wonky fridges to countries like Djibouti to resell. Neither would surprise me.


Dishes are kept in the living room because there are no cupboards. Other than a few specialty items like Ranch dressing and peanut butter (which are in a closet), food is mostly kept in the fridge or on one of two shelves or at the grocery store or neighborhood dukaan until I need it.

huge step up from my Somaliland kitchen

huge step up from my Somaliland kitchen – there was a fridge. No electricity.

I have a blue or gray or rusty gas bomb next to the stove and there are electrical cords looping around the walls, over the door, snaking their way to the voltage regulator.

My Djiboutian kitchen is massive compared to a lot of Djiboutian kitchens. And my Djiboutian kitchen has provided heaps of entertainment and delicious food and memories. But sometimes I’m still jealous of those American kitchens where kids perch on countertops and there are sunny nooks and you can drink your coffee while actually sitting down on a chair.


My Djiboutian kitchen is not beautiful or spacious or trendy. It is functional and it functions well. When we moved to Africa, I thought spaghetti sauce came from a jar of Ragu and pizza had to either be delivered or frozen. I have used half a dozen African kitchens, small and cramped and not always well-stocked but I have learned to slice a tomato in my hand and to knead bread while squatting on the floor and that it isn’t the size of the kitchen that matters but the taste of the food and the love of the family and the sharing of meals with guests from all over the world.

What’s your kitchen like?