How to Cook in a Hostel

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Dundee Backpackers in Dundee, Scotland

One of my favorite things about traveling is the food. After picking a destination, and maybe plotting out a few major points of interest, the next thing I do is search for the best restaurants, holes in the wall, and street vendors to visit.

While I love trying local specialties and grabbing meals around a new city, eating out can quickly add up and strain your travel budget. If you’re staying at a hostel, you’ve got the opportunity to cook for yourself and save your hard earned money for other things.

Through my travels, and the various trials and errors they have entailed, I’ve learned a few tricks for making the best of hostel kitchens, no matter how shabby or understocked:

Take Stock of the Kitchen

Before you ever make a grocery list or plan a time to cook, visit the kitchen and see what you’re working with. Check out what appliances, cookware, and tools are at your disposal. I’ve seen everything from well equipped kitchens featuring several ovens and stovetops, to a hostel that only had a single hot plate. While you’re there, see if your hostel provides a “Free Food” cabinet. Many hostel goers buy too much and leave behind their leftovers. This means you can sometimes find a wealth of staples like rice, pasta, oils, vinegars, and spices for free.

Shop With the Locals

Take notice of where the locals shop. Avoid the convenience stores usually found near tourist districts because of their lack of variety and high prices. Instead visit farmers’ markets and local grocery stores to do your shopping. One of the fun things when visiting another country is seeing all the foreign (to you) foods available. Plus if you’re choosing to cook a local specialty, you’ll have no trouble finding all the ingredients.

Avoid Peak Times

Even during off seasons, hostels can be packed with fellow travelers. This means the kitchen area will likely be full during peak eating hours around lunch and dinner. If you can, try and cook a little before or after regular mealtimes. Though cooking side-by-side with other hostel-goers can be a great way to get a conversation going, you might save yourself some time (and stress) by choosing your timing wisely.

Add Some Spice to Your Life

There’s no better way to quickly improve a meal than by adding a hearty dose of spices. Here are a few simple solutions to avoid overloading your backpack with spice bottles while still creating tasty meals:

  • Base your meal choices around the spices available in your hostel’s free pantry. This can lead to some really creative recipe creation.
  • Buy one or two spice blends (cajun, Italian, lemon-pepper, etc.) to just sprinkle on each meal for a serious flavor boost. This works best if you’re traveling for a week or less, so you don’t get tired of the recurring flavors.
  • If you know you’ll always want certain spices on hand, your best bet is to pack your favorites in a stackable pill organizer (like this one.) The screw-on top keeps the spices in place and the containers are usually easy to label.

Keep It Simple

Nobody expects you to make a luxurious five-star meal at your hostel. If that’s your thing, more power to you. But I like to stick with simple “recipes” that require little ingredients. It’s usually a good idea to create a balanced meal with about five ingredients, including a protein source, carbs, and veggies or fruit. Since I’m usually cooking for myself and Peter, and we don’t mind leftovers, most of the meals I cook makes about four servings. If you’re traveling solo, make sure you only buy how much you need for your stay. Some of my favorite simple hostel recipes include:

  • Creamy Lentil Curry: Cook red lentils in coconut milk, vegetable broth, and curry powder. Top with chopped pineapple and cilantro.
  • Shroom Pasta: Cook pasta. Sauté a chopped onion and a few handfuls of mushroom in olive oil. Toss with pasta and sprinkle with red pepper and nutritional yeast.
  • Hearty Soup: In a large pot sauté a chopped onion in olive oil. Add a can of diced tomatoes and a can of white beans. Add a chopped potato or any desired veggies you have on hand. Pour in enough vegetable broth to cover everything and simmer until veggies are tender.
  • Super Spuds: Poke a few holes in a russet potato. Microwave for 5-7 minutes, or until soft. Top with a handful of spinach and chopped green onions. Dollop on salsa and guacamole before serving.

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