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.

New York City Pt. I

I was planning on posting about our vacation much sooner, but I was busy on the hunt for a job after graduating. I’m happy to say that I’ve found one, and in the food writing industry no less! I’ll be MyRecipes.com’s recipe editor and officially start in two weeks. On top of that Peter and I will be moving soon, so there’s a lot of exciting change happening in our household!

Back to our December vacation though:

It was a challenge to find someplace reasonably priced (and not 100% sketchy) in New York City, but we finally settled for the Harlem YMCA. Our room was a pristinely clean private bunk bed with very nice bathrooms, a simple kitchen with a fridge and microwave, and it was just one block from the subway.

A plus was the good view of Harlem!DSCF0376We arrived to the city ridiculously early at the crack of dawn and decided that we would skip the subway and walk the still peaceful streets to Central Park. DSCF0317DSCF0319We arrived at the park and spent the next hour wandering around and dodging early morning runners and cyclists. DSCF0329DSCF0327DSCF0325DSCF0335DSCF0331DSCF0333To avoid a hangry meltdown from us both after walking several miles with no food, we ate breakfast. We found a small, unmarked food truck (we’re still not sure it was legal) that was whipping out sandwiches. Peter got an egg and cheese and I got a PB&J on a plain bagel. Both sandwiches were toasted on the griddle and delightfully warm after being in the cold wind for a while.

Ready to give our feet a rest, we jumped on the subway and headed to The New York Public Library.DSCF0345DSCF0347The architecture was everything we hoped for and we spent half the time with heads craned back and mouths open. Sadly, the reading room, which is one of the main attractions for visitors of the library, was closed for ceiling restoration. We’ll just have to add it to our “see it next time” list!DSCF0352The kid’s room had a rad lego version of the lions on the front steps.DSCF0359Our next stop was the Morgan Library and Museum. While the picture below is of the original building owned by J.P. Morgan, the actual museum now spans through several buildings with various exhibits and galleries. DSCF0370The sheer amount of ornamentation was astounding and down to the most minute parts of the building were embellished. DSCF0364The most stunning part, hands down, was the library. All I could think was “This is my dream!” as we saw the thousands of books.DSCF0369They also had several Medieval manuscripts on display that Peter promptly had a freak out over.DSCF0367Lunch was at Franchia, a vegan Korean restaurant. We were both really excited to try Korean because despite being voracious eaters of kimchi at home we’d never eaten anything close to the traditional cuisine. Although both of us ended up getting dishes that had names from other countries in it, so it may not have been as traditional as we intended.

I got the Penang Noodles with Spicy Curry and Coconut Broth. I have a weakness for any type of Asian noodles, so this was right up my alley. Not very spicy, but it was a flavorful creamy broth full of vegetables, chunks of tofu and mock chicken, and delightfully chewy noodles.DSCF0374Peter also took the pasta route and chose the Singapore Curry Angel Hair. It was a good size plate of noodles in a thin curry sauce tossed with vegetables and served with lobster balls. The latter was new to us, and it tasted like a soft seafood-y meatball. It was a great meal and the service was extremely good with very friendly waiters.DSCF0373After our lunch we were fairly tired from all we’d packed into the morning, so we went back to the YMCA for a small power nap to regain some energy.

Feeling fresh and ready to go, we went to the most obnoxious of all American landmarks: Time Square. Despite the overwhelming amount of ads and flashing lights, we had a good time people watching and doing what we do best. Eating.

We got snacks and some hot drinks for our frozen bodies from Nuchas, which was a tiny food truck in the thick of things. DSCF0381I got an almond milk cappuccino and shiitake curry empanada. They both were great and we had a great time laughing at all the insane people in costumes in the square.DSCF0384Our personal favorite was the guy who had a giant pot leaf shirt and was carrying around US and UN flags while screaming “LEGALIZE IT!” He wasn’t even asking for money. Just spreading the word, apparently.DSCF0390Our main entertainment for the night was Matilda the Musical at the Shubert Theatre. DSCF0395I have to start by saying this was my first Broadway show ever. So I may just be not be used to something of this quality, but Matilda the Musical was the best live performance I’ve ever seen. The cast was amazing, the story was equally funny and melancholy, and the props were so good that when Peter and I left we were still trying to figure out how they did a few of the scenes.

Seriously, if you like Matilda the book or the movie, or you’re just wanting to see a good musical while in NYC, please think about this one.DSCF0405Pizza was something we felt like we had to do in New York. So we chose Pizza Suprema for dinner because of the combination of it being voted best slice in town and they had vegan pizza available!DSCF0419Right after I took this photo the place got ridiculously packed to where people were sharing booths with one another. A good sign when you’re someplace with as many pizza options as NYC.DSCF0416Peter got cheese and I got the vegan. The vegan was chock full mushrooms, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and herbs. It was so juicy and good, it didn’t even need vegan cheese or anything. Peter didn’t even have words for his, he just kept going “Mmmmm” with his mouth full. It definitely lived up to our expectations.DSCF0412Overall a jam-packed first day in NYC and much more fun to come!

Honeymoon – Austin

This post is definitely going to be the longest thing I’ll write about our honeymoon, because we stayed nearly 4 days in Austin, an amazingly vegan-friendly city.
If you’re comfortable walking pretty much everywhere, we recommend staying at the Super 8 near the capital/university area. We stayed there and it was a five minute walk to downtown Austin.

Day 1: We arrived by train in the early afternoon and immediately set off looking for the Shhmaltz food truck, famous for their vegan reuben.The truck is in a nice little area tucked behind a bookstore. We somehow managed to get lost, but when we called the lovely owners (twice actually) they managed to give us directions that led us there.  So, even if you’re using Google Maps, remember to check behind the bookstore!

The area was nice and green with a canopy to shade us from the sun. Plus adorable planters with succulents decorated the tables.I, of course, got the vegan ‘Harvey P’ reuben and on the side a pickle sampler. The sampler included pickled cucumber, jicama, carrots, and watermelon radishes.

The sandwich lived up to the hype, and the pickles were the perfect accompaniment. The seitan (house-made, I might add) was full of flavor with an eerily similar to meat texture, topped with an equally delicious sauce and smashed between toasted marbled rye.  Peter ate their ‘Gertrude Stein’ goat cheese sandwich, that he described as “creamy and yummy”. The city was chock-full of interesting street art.

 Although we don’t have any photos from it, our afternoon was spent wandering through downtown before heading to the University of Texas campus to visit the Blanton Art Museum and the Texas Memorial Museum.

The Blanton was awesome with several pieces of modern art and an exhibit on civil rights. My personal favorite piece was a life-size Aunt Jemima packing heat.

The Texas Memorial was small, but interesting, and definitely worth the small entry fee of $2 each for students ($4 for anyone else 13+). It had a decent collection of geodes, minerals, dinosaur bones, and examples of local wildlife. Before we knew it, we’d actually been looking around there for over an hour!

All of that walking built up an appetite, so we visited a food truck I’d been hearing about (and wanting to visit) for years: Arlo’s. We got there right before a storm was about to break and the guys in the truck were happy to package our meal for to-go.

Once we got our food, the heavens opened and our tiny umbrella couldn’t shield both us and the burgers. So we sacrificed our own comfort to save the food, and jogged to our nearby hotel. Once dried off in the hotel (sorry for the shoddy lighting) we dug into our bacon cheese burgers and order of tater tots. Now I know you can’t tell from the picture, but this is the most magnificent burger I have ever eaten. Probably my favorite meal of our entire honeymoon.

The burger patty and bacon are all house-made seitan, and I’m fairly sure they used Daiya cheese, along with lettuce, tomatoes, and mustard. Oh man. We ended up eating there twice more during the trip, despite us wanting to try new things every meal. If I lived in Austin, I’m pretty sure the Arlo’s staff would soon know Peter and I by name. Day 2: We were up bright and early to visit the Texas Capital Building and go on a tour. The building was amazingly decorative, from the doorknobs to the hinges.
 The main focal point (and the most crowded place) was the center of the building, which at the very tip-top featured a huge star that was actually 8 feet across, but looked much smaller from the ground level.

 Our tour guide was nice and informative, and seemed genuinely happy to answer questions. We went through the Texas House of Representatives room, and were told about various things happening there and the history behind some of the portraits on the walls.

 For lunch we went to the Austin Farmer’s Market There were so many vendors with beautiful local produce and products. It made me quite sad that I didn’t have a kitchen to cook all the wonderful looking fruits and vegetables in.
We got some tamales at The Gardner’s Feast tent. I chose the mushroom type and Peter got feta and spring veggies. To drink we had our first encounter with kombucha at the Buddha’s Brew tent. They had taps on display so you could sample the wares before investing in a bottle. We both ended up liking the blueberry flavor best. Peter being King of the Pigeons after dropping tamale crumbs.
 We couldn’t resist dessert from the Happy Vegan Baker. Peter chose a vanilla cupcake and I got a blackberry pastry. Both were delicious and we left the Farmer’s Market full and happy!
We couldn’t resist a good photo op. The First Street Bridge was a really pleasant walk over the Colorado River. It was a pretty view and felt far away from the actual traffic.
Our main destination across the bridge was Peter Pan Mini Golf. A kinda creepy but a lot of fun mini golf course. I don’t know who sat down and thought up the ideas for each hole’s theme. Seriously, an ant singing on a taco? Or an obviously high bunny rabbit with a skateboard? The wackiness of the sculptures made it even more fun.
 Neither of us are actually any good at mini golf.
 Missing holes took up the rest of our afternoon, so we decided to get dinner on that side of the river. Thankfully, it’s hard to go someplace in Austin and not be within two blocks of vegan food. Unity Vegan Kitchen was just a short walk away and offered some very, very good food.

Peter partook in the lasagna, which was a big portion size and filled up with thick tomato sauce, something similar to ground beef, and cashew cheese. I chose their weekly special, which was a chick’n and cheese chimichanga.

Peter is happy with anything pasta, so he gave his meal a thumbs up. Mine was amazing and full of gooey cheese, spiced chick’n (pretty sure it was Beyond Meat), and all wrapped up in a crispy fried tortilla. It was also served with two cups of salsa on the side, one red and one green. If you’re in the neighborhood, check this place out. Their food rocks.
Day 3: Texas has a reputation for having great Mexican food, so we wanted to try out the Tamale House East, which had stellar reviews online. The large line told us that it must be worth waiting for. I happily ordered the vegan mushroom enchiladas and Peter asked for the cheese enchiladas. I’m sad to say that this was our one bad food experience in Austin. The waitress brought out our food and mine had cheese. I told her I’d ordered the vegan enchiladas and she seemed bewildered and said that was them. “Is this vegan cheese?” I asked doubtfully and then she said “No.” After a minute, the manager came out and said he could fix this and whisked the plate away. About 5 minutes later cheese-free enchiladas were at my table, though all of the staff had acted like I was being unreasonable.

The food was just mediocre, like something I could get at any run of the mill Mexican joint. A soggy corn tortilla stuffed with sauteed mushrooms (without any real flavor) and topped with green salsa. The sides were fine, but lukewarm when brought out. Needless to say, I wouldn’t recommend going there if you don’t want a plate covered in cheese.
 We visited the French Legation Museum on a whim, and it turned out to be one of our favorite parts of Austin. It featured Austin’s oldest home and our tour guide told us about former residents. The entire thing was furnished with period pieces and fascinating to view. If you don’t want to pay for the tour (even though it was only $5!) the grounds are free to visit during the museum’s open hours. Afterwards we strolled through the Texas State Cemetery. It was well kept and featured some well known people (including Austin’s namesake). 

 Since our last restaurant visit didn’t work out, we decided to stick with food trucks again. There was a food truck park just a five minute walk from the hotel and there we settled on Coat and Thai for dinner. Peter got the pad thai and I ordered the green curry (be sure to specify you want it vegan!). We got it packaged to-go so we could eat while we waited on the bats.
 Under Congress Avenue Bridge is a horde of thousands of bats that fly out every night and people go out to watch them.The area where we sat was actually really nice, even more so when it cooled down after the sun set. We happily sat there and ate our Thai food (which was delicious and very filling!) while we waited.
 Eventually a steady stream of bats flew out and it was an amazing sight. You could hear them squeaking and see them fly out into the nearby trees. We stayed about two hours, just fascinated by the seemingly unending amount of bats.  Our train out of Austin was later in the day, so we had time for lunch and an activity or two. We went back to the food truck park, but sadly Coat and Thai was closed. Luckily though, Way South Philly was open!

Peter got the Marciano and asked for no steak, so basically it was a pizza sub (which he was ecstatic about). I got the Adrian, which had squash, zucchini, mushrooms, bell pepper, and onions.

gotta be honest, at first I was sad at the thought of just a veggie sandwich. I expected something that would probably be a little plain and not filling, but boy was I wrong. The veggies were all perfectly cooked and well seasoned. The roll it was served on was equal parts crusty and soft, and then everything was perfected with a little drizzle of hot sauce on top. Good job, Way South Philly. You taught a jaded old vegan that even a meat and cheese place can make a darn good veggie sandwich.
 After lunch we walked around 6th Street, which had a huge collection of restaurants, art galleries, clothing stores, and other wacky findings. One of the best things there was the Museum of the Weird, which was tucked into the back of a gift shop.

When you first enter the tour guide does a small (yet impressive) show featuring sword swallowing and other classic stunts. Then you’re free to explore the museum’s array of items, ranging from deformed taxidermy animals (see below) to the fiji mermaid and big foot tracks. Although the museum wasn’t huge, we had a great time there. A lot of the displayed items’ authenticity are questionable, but that just adds to the fun.
We had such an absolute blast in Austin, we were sad to leave. And even though we packed our days here to the brim with activities, I feel like we just saw a small fraction of what the city has to offer. We’ll be back, that’s for sure.