Food is universally considered a good thing. One of my favorite activities is to cook for myself and others, despite the fact I am not the most fancy cook around.
Because of this trait, I often am asked about how I ate while I was traveling. Negotiating the balance between cooking on a backpacker’s budget and eating out at local restaurants while traveling is a personal process. It depends on one’s tastes and preferences, as well as any dietary and health restrictions. It can also be a social decision as well; I found cooking in hostels to be a great way to bond with other travelers, as I would often share ingredients and split home-cooked meals to save money and make new friends.
For those of you who, like me, lean on the side of cheap and want cook their own meals as much as possible, the rest of this post can serve as a rough guide to cooking.
These tips are based on experiences traveling in Eastern Europe and Turkey, and naturally each and every destination has a different food supply system and different foods available. So these tips are most likely not applicable to other regions. As a secondary caveat, I am in no way a certified nutritionist. All advice given in the following post should be curtailed to your own dietary and nutrition needs. Just because they worked for me is not a guarantee that they will work in the same way for you!
Look at what facilities are available at your accommodation. Is there a stove? If there is a stove, are there pots and pans? Oil? Is there a fridge? How full is the fridge? Is there a microwave? What utensils are available?
Know your currency conversion, how long you will need food, and how much you want to spend. My rule of thumb is to cook at least some meals in-house if you’re staying longer than two or three nights. On the whole, it usually came out cheaper.
If your accommodation has no kitchen or it is reasonable to eat out anyway this entire post is moot for you. Go eat a nice dinner!
If you have the time, take a walk around the local market or supermarket before you start grabbing things. Let go of any preconceived ideas of what a “cheap meal” is. Foods that you’re used to being very cheap may not be an equivalent cost overseas. Open your mind to gastronomic adventures with local foods, because they tend to be cheaper overall! However, if you have a food allergy or other medical condition that restricts your diet, use good judgment!
After scoping out the markets and food-supply situation, I usually buy foods that fall into four categories:
The easiest options I have found for this category are pasta and rice. They tend to be cheap anywhere, sometimes in large quantities. Rice is a bit more mobile, if you’re willing to put up with the extra weight in your bag!
If you’re not in a place where you can find fresh vegetables available, you may be in a city where you can get bags of frozen vegetables. In some ways, these are nice because you only need a microwave to warm them up. But keep an eye out for local produce—as said before, it does tend to be cheaper!
We all need these. If you’re vegetarian or vegan this can get tricky, but not unmanageable, according to most vegans I have met. If you’re not picky, you can usually get these from tinned foods (e.g. beans, tuna) that you can mix in with your carb and vegetables.
The greatest of meals. Breakfast is to be taken very seriously. If you’re lucky enough to be in a hostel or accommodation that offers you breakfast gratis, ignore all this and take full advantage of that. If not, I usually rely on toast, or a combination of yogurt and oats or muesli.
Good luck ingredient hunting!
As if this hasn’t been said several times already, look out for filling, cheap local foods that aren’t what you would normally expect. One example is my discovery of cheap frozen pierogi (potato-filled dumplings) in Poland and Slovakia. A single bag was dinner for two or more nights. It was delicious, and despite its heaviness I regret nothing.
The point is that there may be something delicious out there that you don’t recognize because it’s not what you’re used to eating!
If you’re shopping on a budget, accept the fact that you may not be eating the best things for your body in the long run. It depends on how much you want to spend, and how much time you want to spend cooking. Since I had little money and no schedule, I was willing to cook most of the time. This mostly looked like pasta or rice mixed with various permutations of tinned beans, frozen vegetables, and sauce from a jar. It wasn’t glamorous, but it got the job done! But you may be different from me; therefore, eat what will keep you energized and feeling good so you can savor your time traveling.
Here are a few parting nuggets of wisdom for those of you on a tight budget but who want to also sample the local cuisine. First, you can leave your lunches open to eating out on the town and eat store bought breakfasts and self-cooked dinners. Sometimes I would make sandwiches from bought ingredients in a financial pinch. But if you’re out on the move during the day it’s easier to just eat out and enjoy the experience. Alternately, you can budget in at least one evening meal out, so you can enjoy a full dinner of local foods while relying on cooking the rest of the time!
If you’re a foodie, or if you’re on a tight schedule and have a more flexible budget, then your priorities will obviously look different, and that’s totally okay. Remember that your travel experience is only what you want it to be. If you would prefer to eat out and enjoy the culinary scene of wherever you’re visiting, go do it!
Have any life-changing culinary experiences while you were traveling? Where? What did you eat?