Most long-term travelers know that a hostel kitchen can be a hit or a total miss. Some (okay, most ) hostels will have functional appliances and a decent selection of pots, pans, and other cooking utensils, but some will have a 1985 oven and a rusty knife for the whole kitchen.
You don’t have to stick to take-out or only eat pre-made pasta and sauce when you’re trying to save a few bucks by cooking at “home.” After countless hostels in over a dozen countries, I think I’ve mastered the art of having a delicious (and cheap!) home-cooked meal, no matter the kitchen situation.
Top tips: cooking on the go
In some areas it doesn’t make sense to try to cook your own meal. Southeast Asia has such cheap and delicious street food that a kitchen is a no-go zone. But in more expensive regions like Europe, Oceania, South Africa and South America, cooking can save you a lot of money if you’re trying to travel cheaply. Here are ways to reduce those costs.
Make a plan before you go to the grocery store. You don’t necessarily need a full menu, but be aware of how much time you’ll be spending in one place and what meals you’ll want to cook yourself. Next, focus on finding ingredients that can be shared between meals. Like spinach, which can be the green stuff for a sandwich and serve as a green salad for dinner.
Vegetables are your friends. I find that some produce like tomatoes, onions, and herbs go a long way and are cheaper than packaged produce. Moreover, you can find these vegetables in almost every country in the world. Pro Tip: If spices are non-existent, sautéing garlic and/or onions in oil or butter is a guaranteed way to make anything taste delicious.
Watch your perishables. Buy only enough perishables for the number of days you will be in one place. Trying to bring a carton of milk on a hot bus ride is a surefire way to ruin your trip (or make the bus stink).
Consider one-dish meals. Food prepared in one dish means you won’t be the person hogging all the pots and pans in the kitchen at dinnertime, with the added bonus of fewer dishes to wash. Stir-frying oven-baked chicken breast with root vegetables or potatoes makes for a quick, hearty one-sheet meal. Or tossing sautéed tomatoes, cheese and onions into pasta with pesto sauce is an easy dish to make.
Starch + Protein + Vegetables + Dairy = Yum. Rice and pasta are mainstays for budget travelers, but they often get abused. To keep you full longer, you need some form of blended protein. For carnivores, that means chicken, fish, beef, etc. For vegetarians, that means tofu, beans, nuts, etc. To prevent this formula from becoming bland, I like to introduce my secret ingredient in countries where it is possible: milk. A little queso fresco, grated parmesan or cream can take a meal from good to great.
Plan for portability. You are traveling, so you will be doing sightseeing, hiking and generally activities outside the hostel. That’s why sandwiches will always be your friends. Think charcuterie and cheese, apple and cheese, or good old PB&J. Watch out for anything that can spoil in a hot backpack, like soft cheese or avocados. Nuts and fruit are easy and healthy snacks that you can take with you. You can also take non-perishable food from place to place. Thus, a box of pasta can take a single traveler very far!
Be colorful. Try to get as many different colors in your meal as possible. This brings a variety of flavors and nutrients to your meal, with the added benefit of making it look pretty. I aim for three or more colors per dish, and that’s what makes my housemates crave when I sit down to eat.
Do it Yourself: Inn Recipes
Ready to be the next Bourdain? Here are some recipes to get you started on your next inn dining experience.
Breakfast is easy to forget when you have to catch an early train or catch the sunrise. This make-ahead meal is adaptable and portable, plus it’s delicious!
½ cup rolled oats (any type but instant)
⅔ cup milk (non-dairy is fine)
⅓ cup yogurt
1 tablespoon of sweetener from the sharing department, which can be: honey, sugar, syrup, etc.
1 teaspoon cinnamon or vanilla extract (if available, not needed)
Any fresh fruit, dried fruit and/or nuts you have given on hand (I love cinnamon and apples or dried cranberries and nuts)
Mix all the ingredients together and pour into a jar with a lid (old pasta sauce jars work great). Refrigerate for at least four hours, preferably overnight. The next day, open and enjoy directly from the jar!
Real macaroni and cheese
Sometimes you just miss the comfort food of home. It will taste like mom’s home cooking – with no packet of powdered cheese in sight. It’s so good that you have to do enough to share it.
For 2 to 3 people
½ lb pasta (any kind, but smaller noodles are better)
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon of flour
1 cup milk
7 oz. shredded semi-soft cheese, such as havarti, fontina, gruyere, unaged cheddar, etc. (Choose a cheese that you really like the taste of and that melts relatively easily and has no rind)
Salt and pepper
Optional additions: cooked chopped bacon, sautéed onions and/or garlic, peppers, cooked chicken, etc.
Cook the pasta in salted water, drain.
While the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. When the butter sizzles, whisk in the flour until well blended. Heat until golden and bubbly. Pour in milk and heat until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Add cheese and continue to stir until completely melted. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Pour in the cooked pasta, stir until everything is hot. Add all the extras you fixed and dig in!
Pro tip: I’ll cook some bacon, then use the fat to sauté some garlic, onion, and even chicken pieces to throw in if I need the protein. It makes everything so good!
Sunday roast in the pan
A hearty roast dinner doesn’t have to be an all-day ordeal. Here is a cheat version that will have you swallowing in no time.
1 chicken breast
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into ½ inch pieces
1 small squash, peeled and cut into ½ inch pieces
1 medium root vegetable, such as parsnip, turnip or similar
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced (optional)
½ onion, quartered (optional)
3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil
Salt, pepper, and any other dried seasonings from the shelf to share, such as paprika, thyme, rosemary, etc.
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Coat the chicken with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Toss vegetables and onion in oil and minced garlic. Season with salt, pepper and any other spices you can find. Place all items on a baking sheet, with the chicken separated from the vegetables. Roast for 20 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink in center and vegetables are tender.
Cooking on the go can be tough, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a hearty, home-cooked meal! What tricks have you developed on the road? What’s your favorite dish when you don’t have a full kitchen at your disposal? Let me know in the comments!