We've all been there. Black beans is on your grocery list, so you head for the vegetable aisle only to find nothing. You discover after much hunting, that black beans are housed in the international foods aisle with the Mexican food.
Navigating an unfamiliar supermarket can definitely be a pain, but throw in strange new foods and a foreign language, and grocery shopping becomes downright challenging.
Recently, I posted an article that offered some recipe inspiration to temper the unglamorous reality that is cooking on the road. Building on that, today's post will delve into managing budget travel cooking, even when stuck with unfamiliar kitchens and grocery stores from around the world.
Despite my best efforts to seek out Airbnbs that offer full kitchens, I occasionally discover less-than-ideal circumstances.
When this happened, I started by identifying exactly what I will be working with before heading to the store. If there isn't a decent sized pot, soup or even pasta is off the menu. Only a small frying pan? I won't be making frittata. No paring knife? I will look for pre-cut veg or use veggies that are easy to break with my hands, like green beans, broccoli and cauliflower. I try to focus on what I do have and adjust meals accordingly.
I look to ensure I have plenty of aluminum foil on hand, as it is your best friend on the road. It can be used to cover skanky pans or serve as an impromptu baking sheet when doubled/tripled. I build up the sides on a sheet to broil cheese on stale toast- my hack version of Welsh Rarebit! I also use it to store leftovers and wrap cut onions, lemons and the like. It can transform the inside of a colander into an extra bowl. No ice tray? You can make ice with an empty egg carton lined with aluminum foil.
Finally, I search out whatever ingredients may be on hand. Most places have salt & pepper, oil, vinegar and sugar, but sometimes I'm lucky enough to find various spices, pasta, rice, beans and other goodies. I'll brainstorm for ideas (sometimes using the internet) and come up with a few days of meal ideas to get us started. In this way, I am prepared to cook and not be tempted by every restaurant we pass on our daily walk.
Break the Rules
Sometimes, I use our kitchen woes as an excuse to throw the rules out the window. For example, we had a particularly awful kitchen in Marseille, so we agreed to eat out more, but we also alternated these restaurant excursions with 'grazing dinners'.
Perry is a big fan of this type of eating, with a combination of bananas, peanuts, carrots, figs, chocolate milk and dark chocolate his preferred choice. Growing up in a 'meat and potatoes' household, the grazing approach has been a bit more difficult for me, but I've gotten more comfortable with it especially if it includes olives, baguette, cheese and wine. Ok, AND chocolate!
Navigating the grocery store can be equal parts anticipation and dread. I look forward to seeing new items that are unique to whatever country I am in, however, it is frustrating trying to figure out what certain things are, or identifying alternatives when I can't find what I'm looking for.
My fellow American traveler friends, you need to get used to certain things in Europe when it comes to food.
Instant Coffee. I realize the following might be a deal breaker amongst the coffee purists out there. First, you can't always count on a coffee maker in the places you stay. Sometimes, you might luck out with a french press or cafetiere, but the most common coffee available in Europe is good ole Nescafe instant. Look, I used to be a snobby coffee addict and still appreciate an excellent cup of joe as much as the next gal. I definitely seek out a proper espresso-based drink from a cafe when I'm out and about.
While I never thought I would learn to enjoy instant, the cost and availability make it a necessity. Life's too short for bad coffee you say? Well, a gal's gotta do whatever it takes to be a long-term budget traveler. I weaned myself to instant with Starbucks Via in the beginning, but the price forced me to get on the regular instant coffee bandwagon... and I'm still alive (and happily caffeinated) to tell the tale.
Milk & Coffee Creamer. Things started off well in Northern Europe. Those delightful Scandinavians drink filter coffee and use regular fresh milk and creamer. But, eventually, we began to move south and discovered shelf stable milk is the norm and the cream you find is the thick stuff used in cooking. I had to give into the idea of shelf stable whole milk as my coffee creamer. Guess what? I'm used to that now, too. We recently arrived in Germany where fresh milk is once again a normal occurrence and it feels so... luxurious!
Problematic Produce. Yes, even in Western Europe it is common to see skanky fruit and vegetables. Stuff that looks bruised, a bit dirty and might have bugs on it. I'm used to it now, but it took me a long time to get over it. The other produce issue I've I had is that I keep forgetting to weigh and print out the price before checking out with the cashier. It was embarrassing the first time it happened, but I felt like a downright idiot the second and third time. *Top Tip* Look for a scale and white stickers in the produce area OR look to see if there are numbers in the corner of the price per kilo card. If bananas are code 10, it's a sign you may need to weigh and print out a sticker.
But my biggest produce pet peeve? All the grapes have seeds. GAAAAHHHH!
Mystery Meat. Trying to decipher a multitude of foreign languages is difficult, even with Google Translate and then there are those countries that use the Cyrillic alphabet! Now apply this to a package of meat. Just when you think you know what a particular meat *looks* like, I can testify that I have confused cut up chicken and pork on more than one occasion. Especially since the word for pork starts with 'C'.
No issues with red meat, but that's because the prevalence of goat and horse meat in Europe means I have avoided red meat altogether.
Less Choice. In general, you will have less to choose from on the shelf, but rather than a negative, I find it less overwhelming and easier to shop. If there are too many choices (like bread for example), I look for the item that has the largest turnover. If it's popular with the locals, it's probably for a good reason.
My Shopping List
When I select an Airbnb, I look for those that denote *full kitchens* including staples such as olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper and the like. You would be surprised how often you don't find these basic items, necessitating I buy them more often than I would like. I started carrying salt & pepper in a ziplock bag because of this.
However, if the basics are covered, here is what my shopping list looks like from week to week.
- Instant Coffee (priorities)
- Legumes/Pulses (white beans or lentils)
- Pasta or Rice
- Can of tomatoes
- Chicken or Veggie Broth Cubes
- Cucumbers/Tomatoes/Avocado (for salad)
- Onion/Garlic (for satueeing)
- Carrots (for Perry to eat raw or to roast)
- Broccoli or Cauliflower (for roasting, stir fry or curry)
- Sweet Potatoes (for roasting, baking or curry)
- Parsley or Cilantro (Coriander)
- Spinach or Kale
- Fruit for Snacking
- Nuts for Snacking
- Dark Chocolate
- Cured pork product (bacon, chorizo, pancetta)
- Eggs (for breakfast or frittata)
- Milk (for coffee)
- Local Cheese (try something new)
- Local Bread (try something new)
If I'm feeling low on energy, I'll pick up chicken, pork or beef, depending on how expensive it is. As I've mentioned before, I tend to order meat when we eat out so I'm fine being having a more vegetarian focus with my own cooking. Between the cost, prep, lingering smell (in a tiny apartment, eek) and clean up, I'm not missing it much.
Looking at the list, it seems like a lot! In reality, I might not buy everything all at once, especially the veg so I end up making 2-3 trips to the store over the course of a week. With our typical week-long stay, I'm getting better at managing inventory so we have little to no waste.
Now that I've got a strategy for cooking and shopping, I no longer dread the whole grocery shopping experience and we are financially and physically better off because of it.
Thanks for reading!
Next time on Gobsmacked: My Favorite Walks in Europe