In between every glamorous mountain photo shoot, the tango lessons, and the midnight coffee after a rocking night with new friends, there is a chore that must be done: cooking. Actually, if you’re like me, you enjoy this chore.
Usually when we go on vacation, we’ll find a variety of places to eat – some nice, some cheap, some that we go back to over and over. We often find a way to only eat out one or two meals a day rather than all three to save a little bit of money. But on a trip where our total daily budget is around $65 for food, lodging and everything else we do, we find ourselves preparing pretty much all of our own meals – no matter what the kitchen provides us. We’ve definitely had some nights where we get a cheap meal out – empanadas in Santiago and cheap (but really great) salad bars in Buenos Aires, but this post is about cooking, so we’ll stick to meals we prepared ourselves.
So far, we’ve really had three situations we’ve been cooking in: On the trail, in hostels, and in apartments. The latter two aren’t always so different, but there can be some pretty interesting (ie. frustrating) situations that you deal with when 5 people are trying to cook at the same time.
1. On the trail
The name of the game here is: bring as little as possible. The less you bring, the more you enjoy the 9 hour hikes. Our kitchen on the trail weighed 270 grams (that’s just over a half pound for our American friends). That was the stove, pot, pan, spoon, and lighter. The fuel weighed another 110 grams. The fun part was that everything could fit inside of the pot, so it was light and compact!
So what did we cook? For breakfast, it was mostly a cup of soup or oatmeal and some tea. We didn’t really eat lunch, but mostly snacked on nuts and dried fruit with some salami and cheese for those breaks when you really needed a good snack. Dinner was where real cooks are made – rice or pasta dinner packets that just needed some boiling water mixed in. I don’t think we ever complained about not having a good meal, though I think we both found ourselves on the hungry side by the end of the 10 days. For our last breakfast, we bought some eggs and I cooked us up poached eggs on bread. Fun way to end the trek and proof that you can make special meals even on the trail!
2. In a hostel
Since you’re often sharing a refrigerator (which may be extra small) as well as the kitchen, the name of the game here is: buy for today and make it in one pot and on one burner. In these situations, you’re at the mercy of whatever cookware the hostel has to provide. Sometimes these can be scarce, since many travelers come through and I expect a few may “accidentally” make off with a spoon or two and a pot here and there. I think there are two meals that sum up our experience in hostels pretty well.
The Iron Chef Kitchen. The basic idea of this show is you have several chefs each with their own set of ingredients trying to make the best meal they can in a set amount of time. Our meal in El Calafate was sort of like this, except rather than each set of competitors having their own kitchen, we all had to compete over the sink, stove and counter space. Lots of patience with a bit of stealth is essential. We hadn’t learned the “one-pot rule” at this point, so we were making pasta with chicken and veggies, which required two burners and two rounds with the frying pan. Our fellow iron-chefs, were making a gourmet dinner of rice, eggs, steaks and veggies – also requiring more than one pot and one burner. We went back and forth grabbing burners and cookware as fast as the other so much as turned their back to drain their pasta. We did have our meal and we did enjoy it, but I can’t claim to have had much patience or even stealth.
The Microwave Kitchen. No stove, no problem. We spent two nights at a hostel that only had a microwave and a mini-fridge for the kitchen. Rather than trying to spend a lot of time figuring out how to make pasta in a microwave (it can be done – 2:24 of this video), we went for the tossed salad in a bag. Lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, carrots, and cheese all chopped with my leatherman and then tossed in the lettuce bag. Add some olive oil, and you’ve got yourself a great salad. Add an empanada or two on the side and we had ourselves a full meal.
3. In an apartment
Now we’re cooking! Here you’ve usually got a better selection of cookware and a better selection of cooking partners/adversaries – usually none! We’ve only rented private rooms so far, so we’re sharing the cookware of the owner, which usually results in better quality. Even so, we’ve had some varied experiences – one kitchen was the size of a phone booth with a hot plate, microwave, and toaster oven and only one outlet between the three, while another was large with a good stove and good cookware. Here is where you can start to get a bit more creative. What have been some of our favorite meals?
Pizza. Argentina was settled by immigrants, so when I asked what typical Argentine food was, the answer was 1. Asado (BBQ), 2. Italian – pizza and pasta, and 3. French. They love their pizza here and there are plenty of places to by “pre-pizza” – a pizza shell with a wee bit of sauce on it. We’ve made had some combination of cheese, chorizo, pepper, mushrooms, and caramelized onion pizzas.
Pasta and Rice. As with pizza, Argentine’s love their pasta. There are plenty of types of pasta and sauces. We usually mix it with a some sautéed veggies and chicken. We’ll mix the rice with veggies and steak.
Gourmet Meals. As I said, you can afford to get a bit more creative when you have more time and space. We treated our friends and our host to a meal of Penne a la Vodka and chicken, a couple of nights ago. It’s delicious and is actually a sneaky easy recipe – you just add ingredients to the sauce as you cook, so only one pan is needed for the sauce and one for the pasta (note: this wouldn’t be a bad hostel recipe if you can avoid the Iron Chef Kitchen). To top off the meal, Danielle added her favorite corn, chickpea, cilantro, avocado and tomato salad. The only real lesson from this meal: be careful where you set the second bottle of wine – concrete tile floors don’t seem to be a soft enough landing pad. Wasted wine and all, this was a fun night of swapping fun and awkward Airbnb stories, introducing friends and current host and finding they had many mutual acquaintances and sharing good food, good wine and good vodka till the wee hours of the morning.
4. Eggs for breakfast everywhere!
Anyone that knows me, knows that I consider breakfast the best and most exciting meal of the day. A good breakfast should include eggs as often as possible – a good source of protein and a easy way to introduce some variety to your meals. What are some good ways to cook eggs on the road:
- Hard boiled – this is probably the best way to have eggs and make it be easy. They can be a good choice for the trail if you have a place to buy them like we did in Torres del Paine – all you need is water and flame to cook and they are easy to clean up after. Wherever you are, they carry well – so you can carry them with you for a good midday snack or make a half dozen or so, to grab each morning for an easy breakfast.
- Fried eggs – These take a bit more to clean up after, so not a great choice for the trail, but in a kitchen – these can make a breakfast go from good to great. By themselves or on a slice of toast with a bit of salt and pepper or, even better, with a fresh croissant from the bakery next door. We often pair these with avocados for a delicious and filling morning meal.
- Poached eggs – When you want to treat yourself and your wife to a special breakfast, poach up some eggs with some soft bread to soak up the runny yolks. As I mentioned, this works on the trail if you’ve got the time as well as the kitchen.
Some other thoughts
Spices and condiments. Salt and pepper are pretty essential to cooking. We went several weeks without salt because we couldn’t find a small enough bottle of it and I think we found the lack of salt took a toll on our bodies when we were hiking daily in El Chalten. We also have had a small packet of parmesan cheese with us that is great for pasta, rice or salads. We saw some hikers that had a full spice kit with small plastic containers of 6 different spices. We’ve started to accumulate different spices and now have salt, pepper, paprika and a typical “aji” or spicy mix, as well as olive oil and butter. My advice would be buy some basics early and add in others as your decide you want them.
Cook what you know and like. We often stick to pasta, rice and eggs, because we like them and because we can cook them without looking up recipes and taking too much time. There is a time and place for trying new things, but taking on a 2 hour recipe in an unfamiliar kitchen and with unfamiliar ingredients is probably going to end up being a frustrating experience, especially when you’re hungry and want to be doing something else.
Sample the local flavor. While it’s good to stick to what you know, you also want to enjoy the local food. Finding a good balance of eating out and bringing the local food in to your kitchen is essential for making your money go further. In Argentina, we make this happen by including some good local wines and steaks with our meals. I’m excited for seeing what we find in Bolivia and Peru, where there are more native foods.
Make up something that reminds yourself of home. Danielle has a love for chai iced tea lattes. We have yet to find them, but she started making her own version of an iced tea latte and it’s been enough to curb some of those cravings for home.
Treat Yo’ Self. There will be days you’re sick of cooking and sick of eating healthy. Don’t hold yourself back too many times or you’re bound to just be grumpy. We’ve enjoyed some good meals out of Thai food, hot dogs and of course, Starbucks.