A South America traveler’s guide to cooking

Before we left on this trip, Sheena and I both got pretty interested in cooking. For me, it was initially sparked by reading Cooked by Michael Pollan, and then following that up with Sheena’s suggestion of The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn. Both of these books highlighted the importance of avoiding preservative-laden prepared items in the grocery store, and choosing to cook from scratch, a process that was convincingly demonstrated to be not that difficult. We were roasting whole chickens, nailing the soffritto for our soups, and baking bread in the weeks leading up to our departure.

Gyozas

The idea was that this new found knowledge of cooking would help us greatly during our trip; not only to save money by cooking in our hostel, but by giving us some variation from the standard South American cuisine that we would inevitably tire of. Predictably, we found it a lot harder than we imagined.

The biggest obstacle to cooking while traveling is the kitchen. Hostel kitchen quality varies greatly. You’re lucky if there’s an oven that works, pots that have lids/handles and non-stick coating intact, and standard cooking utensils (i.e. can opener, whisk). Not surprisingly, some of our favorite hostels have had great kitchens.

Ham and Corn Chowder

The second challenge is figuring out what you can actually cook, after assessing the grocery stores and kitchen condition. We spent a lot of time coming up with fool-proof recipes – things that we could count on being able to cook in just about any country, and most every hostel kitchen. A lot of those recipes came from fellow travelers. As early as Patagonia, we were learning from some Utah raft guides how to throw together a killer stew with very basic ingredients and backpacking leftovers. From our Swedish friends we learned how to make Béchamel sauce, and a trained professional chef even explained how to make homemade gnocchi (surprisingly easy). Taco seasoning, it turns out, is essentially cumin and paprika.

We travel with a little tuperware full of spices we use often. Some of these are available everywhere, but not everything (instant yeast was particularly hard to find), so we have found it essential to always keep the spice rack full. Here is our complete list: cumin (comino), paprika, oregano, black pepper (pimienta negra), salt (sal), bay leaves (hojas de laurel), chili powder (aji), garlic powder (polvo de ajo), nutmeg (nuez moscada), cinnamon (canela), thyme (tomillo), garlic cloves (ajo), instant yeast (levadura), chicken stock (caldo de gallina) and baking soda (bicarbonato de sodio). Additionally, we’ll usually have ginger (jengibre) and flour (harina de trigo) nearby.

We still eat out several times a week, but it makes us glad that we have options, and we aren’t forced to settle for lomo saltado or fried chicken again… Below is our complete list of meals that we make while traveling.

Side Dishes or Small Plates

  • Potato Salad
  • Fried Potatoes and Veggies
  • Meat & Cheese Platter (picadas) – probably only want to do this one in Argentina, as the cheese isn’t nearly as exciting elsewhere
  • Green Salad

Cheap and Easy Dinners

  • Chicken noodle/rice and veggie soup
  • Ham and Corn Chowder
  • Soy Sauce Chicken (or sometimes called Chicken Adobo) – soy sauce is available everywhere
  • Veggie Stir-Fry – use beef when in Argentina because the quality is amazing; otherwise, chicken is available everywhere, although you might have to spend a long time cutting it off the bone yourself!
  • Pasta with Béchamel or Red Sauce
  • Tacos – imported Mexican tortillas are available almost everywhere, which was surprising
  • Fried Rice

More Advanced Options

  • Lasagna – ricotta cheese isn’t available, but Béchamel sauce is a great substitute (and an Italian told us that’s what they use in her part of the country anyway)
  • Braised Chicken and Veggies
  • Pizza or Calzones – pizza dough is simple, our recipe came from What to Cook and How to Cook It by Jane Hornby
  • Gyozas, also known as Potstickers – the pre-made wrappers can be found in Peru and Ecuador, or you can make your own
  • Curry – maybe best to have an Englishman, Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani around to try this one (the spices can be hard to find as well)
  • Homemade Gnocchi
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