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The Cooking Essentials for Traveling

Because I am not food snob, I promise. Besides, the doctor told me to lighten up on the steak au poivre.

Cooking is one of the biggies that can make a difference when it comes to budget traveling, ignoring the fact it’s probably one of those things you probably should keep up anyways for health reasons. Retaining diet control is one of the hardest things about traveling. But there are often creative ways to obtain the basics… by raiding the fast-food joint nearest you.

Now, there’s a whole wide world of travel cooking gear and how-tos out there but it’s pretty useless if you can’t get your mittens on some salt, pepper and oil, so we’re gonna start with finding the basics. Besides, I got to get my veggies.

Facilities

There’s a reason I prefer booking vacation rentals and hostels over hotels: kitchen access. But how long I spend in the kitchen depends on the amount of time I have on the trip. Clearly, extended stays are the best  for cooking but even 4- or 5-day trips are worth it.

Perhaps the easiest meal to self-cater is breakfast, which can be a few pieces of fruit or yogurt. If I’m staying past three days, I’ll opt looking into fresh eggs in half-dozen packs (or a dozen if I’m staying for a while) for breakfast and maybe some small pieces of bread from the local bakery.

Condiments

Certain condiments are harder to obtain than others. Salt and pepper are pretty much de facto in any kitchen—though if nothing less than the finest sea salt will do, that’s your responsibility—but it’s also possible to stalk some salt and pepper packets from… somewhere. There are also several DIY methods available but it’s a bit overkill.

Most burger joints will have ketchup, mustard and possibly mayonnaise packets available (I’m not sure whether I should be glad McDonald’s has invaded the globe). Depending on the fast food joint, like Taco Bell, for instance, there might be even hot sauce available.

Sugar, by far, is the easiest to swipe. Caffeine addiction is pretty much universal and all it takes is a quick minute inside a coffee shop to stock up on some for a morning coffee at home. Starbucks is finally good for something.

The common theme is that fast food joints are great for picking up travel-ready condiments. Here’s a small list of where some common condiments can be found at franchises around the country or world (depending on local availability). Let us know if there’s any we should add to the list!

CondimentWhere to Find
Creamerfrom the plane; ask flight attendant
HoneyKFC
Honey BBQ SauceChick-fil-a
Hot SauceTaco Bell
KetchupMcDonalds, Burger King, etc.
Malt VinegarLong John Silver’s
MustardMcDonalds, Burger King, etc.
Parmesan CheesePizza Hut, etc.
PepperMcDonalds, Burger King, etc.
Red PepperPizza Hut, etc.
SaltMcDonalds, Burger King, etc.
Soy SaucePanda Express
SugarStarbucks, Pret-a-Manger, Dunkin’ Donuts, Tim Horton’s, etc.
Tartar SauceLong John Silver’s

Contrast that to butter, which is a pain in the ass to obtain. It’s also a hassle because most grocery stores sell it in a quantity that pretty much outlasts any short-term trips. (Most of the time, oil is an easy sub for cooking anyways. But it sure is nice to have buttered toast…)

The only reasonable solution is to steal small butter packets from a diner (difficult) or bring along 4-ounce sticks of butter (easier). Butter is actually fairly easy to transport—I’ve done it hundreds of times but mostly to bring specialty butter back—by freezing it for a few days and then throwing it in a suitcase at the last minute. Barring 36-hour trips that include a Doha stopover, it’s usually fine.

Spices

A good spice rack is the spice of life. Salt and pepper are the basics but it’s not hard to dole up a custom spice rack for not much money or hassle.

One of the most popular methods to bring spices along a trip is by repurposing Tic Tac boxes into a portable spice rack for the road. This is not recommended because Tic Tac boxes aren’t airtight or spill-proof. I have to agree with Gabriel Harding and Jade Adele from the We Travel and Blog here: it is definitely not fun cleaning garam masala or curry powder out from clothes. For that reason, I’m a bigger fan of stackable pill-looking boxes. (I’d also chunk it in a Ziploc bag for good measure.) There’s a whole range of count and sizes out there, depending on what’s needed.

Only if you like your clothes smelling like curry all the time. (DIYinspired)

Only if you like your clothes smelling like curry all the time. (DIYinspired)

The Mobile Foodie Survival Kit essentially uses the same method to transport spices. The price is a bit high but it does come with spices and a container to protect the spices that’s better than most DIY solutions. That almost makes it worth the cost to prevent it from spilling everywhere or going stale.

Coffee

I used to make fun of Lowell Heddings at How-To Geek back in the day for buying a French press to feed his coffee addiction on the road. I’m going to eat my words now.

Coffee is the only way to function. For those who 1) don’t have access to coffee or 2) can’t stand shitty hotel coffee, this can be a serious issue. While French presses seem like an ideal solution, it’s a tough sell if they are made of glass. Ideally, it should be made of more resilient materials such as plastic. The AeroPress, in particular, has been touted for being especially portable. (Quick note: I’ve got no particular experience with it.)

In terms of coffee grounds, I have a Weck tulip jelly jar I once swiped from a hipster café in San Francisco and is the perfect size for holding enough grounds for about a week, depending on how many cups I go through. (Storing coffee grounds in a mason jar can incur the wrath of TSA police. Mostly because they get mistaken as candles.) If I’m going somewhere like Vietnam or Colombia, I’ll often forego my own grounds. The local stuff, plz.

But seriously, it depends on how much of a true coffee fiend you are. It’s possible to go crazy and bring a personal grinder but each to his own. Even I’ll forego bringing the French press most of the time and just bring fresh grounds. At least half of the time, most lodging places are well-equipped to make coffee. I can’t stand those Keuring things, though.





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