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The Nomad Kitchen

No spices. No staples. Limited tools. Cooking in a travel kitchen can be a problem, but with a little creativity, it’s a good problem!

Living and working as a nomad is exciting, but it has its challenges.

Every time I move, I have a new kitchen — with new limitations. One kitchen had only a paring knife and a cutting board the size of a coaster — I’m sure the hosts were thinking guests might want to slice a lime for a cocktail, but I made pots of chicken soup in that kitchen. Twice I had peppercorns but no grinder, so I had to chop them with a chef’s knife. I frequently have to strain pasta without a colander. Once I discovered, when I was ready to flip my eggs, that I didn’t have a spatula.

The best landlords stock their kitchens with salt, sugar, olive oil, coffee, and teas, but even that isn’t guaranteed. Unless you’re sharing a kitchen with your host, you almost certainly don’t have any staples beyond that.

Who wants to buy a whole package of flour, spices, sugar, vinegar, and salad dressing when you know you’ll be leaving 99% of it behind?

I’ve had to develop a special style of cooking, and a portable kitchen with a few tools, to cope. And I’m not mad about it — learning to create fresh flavors on the fly, using mostly ingredients from the farmer’s market has been great fun for me.

Creating flavor

  • Flavor comes from the food itself and isn’t masked with a lot of enhancements; start with great ingredients.
  • Fresh seasonings include citrus juice, fruits, herbs, spicy peppers, and aromatics like onions, garlic, and shallots
  • You can enhance taste a lot in the cooking process. Caramelizing meats or vegetables adds its own flavor. Roasting garlic, carrots, or tomatoes brings out their sweetness. Charring peppers over an open flame gives smoke. Adding a little raw garlic, ginger, or cilantro gives a sharp bite of flavor.

What to carry

Here’s what I carry in my little travel kitchen. There’s nothing here I couldn’t buy locally, but I like knowing that if I get sick on arrival at my new home, I can keep myself alive until I feel like going to the store.

All of this will fit in a quart-size Ziploc bag, for reference.

  • Coffee drip (I can’t live without decent coffee)
  • Reusable coffee pod (so I can use my coffee in a Keurig if that’s all I’m offered)
  • Corkscrew
  • Coffee (just enough to get me through a few days in case I don’t make it to the store)
  • Salt (the one spice I really need, I carry 1/8 cup or less)
  • Lentils (lightweight and provide protein in places where the meats don’t strike me as fresh) I carry about 1/2–1 cup
  • Rubber bands (very useful for closing containers, including bags of coffee)
  • Leftover dry goods from my last place, in small portions (this might include a small baggie of lentils, quinoa, rice, or leftover seasonings like cinnamon sticks or bouillon)

Shopping List

As soon as I arrive in my new home, I dash to the store and pick up these items:

  • Olive oil (the smallest bottle that will serve me)
  • Eggs
  • Tomatoes
  • Garlic
  • Milk (for my coffee – everything is about coffee!)
  • Pasta
  • Fresh fruit for snacking
  • Nuts for snacking (the only salty snack I won’t overeat!)
  • Veggies (whatever looks good, really, though I have my faves of course)
  • Meat, fish, or cheese (I buy meat or fish only when it seems fresh. )
  • Fun stuff from the freezer (empanadas in Colombia, spinach pies in Greece, dim sum in Malaysia. There’s always something fun & easy!)
  • A bottle of red wine

This gives me everything I need to make coffee, omelets, some pasta with my favorite fresh tomato sauce, and (depending on what fresh ingredients appealed to me) either a stir-fry, a pot of soup, or a meat & potatoes kind of meal, plus some snacks. Eating out or taking a cooking class will usually inspire me to get more adventurous after this first shopping trip and experiment with local flavors, but this initial list gets me through as much as a week on less than $50 in most countries.

I’ll try to keep populating this area with my favorite recipes, so you can see exactly how the flavor happens. Even if you’re not traveling, it’s fun to experiment with this style of cooking, and get away from packaged foods!

In my kitchen recently…