Culinary vagabonding


Within the backpacker lexicon there is a certain unwritten assumption that everything must be done on the most severe cheap. That all corners must be cut, as one must go without as much as possible to become this Champion of Cheap.

One of the first lessons we learn on the road is that travel is not as expensive as we might have assumed. Living a lifestyle that affords long term vagabonding reduces your needs to quite a small amount of things. However, one thing that I absolutely refuse to compromise is my palate. Not only am I vagabonding in search of new unique experiences and insight to other cultures, I am also a culinary vagabond.

I absolutely refuse to live on fast food and convenience store fare to scrape a few extra dollars while traveling. For me, one of the most amazing things to experience while traveling is the different traditions in food that are found around the globe. Certain areas of the world are rich in roots and herbs and spices that we may never have tasted, or indeed heard of, back home.

I’ve seen travelers opt out of the robust sauces and fresh breads in Rome, freshly caught fish in Essaouira, and hearty goulash in Budapest, all in favor of generic packaged food from the local convenience store. I have to wonder, was it worth the thrift?

There is so much to learn from a place simply by taking one full meal. In Korea it is bad luck for any of your belongings to touch the floor while seated in a restaurant or café. In England resting your cutlery on the table means you have finished with your meal. In France you clink glasses and toast while looking your companions directly in the eyes. Don’t do that last one in Korea, though.

Moreover, drastically adjusting your diet to live on cheap packaged food while on the road can compromise your health. It can leave you feeling sluggish or lower your immune system and leave you prone to illness while you are traveling.

Some travelers may assume that experiencing the local fare and eating well means emptying your pockets. However, some of the best local eats are found for the equivalent of a few dollars from the area street vendors, or in small kitchens off the beaten path.

We’ve cut excess from our off the road life in order to make room for travel, but have we somehow unintentionally been cutting out certain on the road experiences that are not to be missed?

What else will we go without? Maybe we won’t climb that volcano in Central America because it’s just a few Quetzales too pricey for us. Maybe we won’t visit that monastery in Myanmar to save on transit fare. Is thrift limiting our experiences?

Posted by | Comments (9)  | March 15, 2010
Category: Food and Drink, Lifestyle Design, On The Road, Travel Health, Vagabonding Life

9 Responses to “Culinary vagabonding”

  1. Shalabh Says:

    I think you forget to mention drink Colleen. Drink, particularly local brews are often cheap. Plus they get everyone talking. I am completely with you on spending the extra buck on local food, the experience is way worth more than the money spent, if it can at all be meausured.

  2. Andrea Says:

    I agree completely. Travel isn’t worthwhile if you can’t sample the local cuisine. I’m more than happy to spend more for a great meal or new culinary experience.

  3. Rebecca Travel-Writers-Exchange Says:

    The pastry looks so good! It doesn’t make sense to travel thousands of miles only to live on food that you can find back in your backyard. Travelers could live a little and taste the local flavor. It could be a once in a lifetime opportunity for some travelers. Go for it!

  4. Shannon OD Says:

    I found that this is REALLY a prominent problem with new backpackers particularly that I meet along my travels. Once I returned from my RTW I realized that the ONLY things I regretted for my whole year trip was worrying overly much about the cost and missing out on some great local trips and foods. Then I vowed never again to pass up that local pastry because I perceived myself on too tight of a budget!

  5. Camden Luxford Says:

    The absolute truth! I’ll stay in the cheapest, dodgiest, most horrible hostels, skip the more overpriced museums, scrimp and save anywhere but on food. It’s such a huge part of the culture, of the daily familial experience in so many countries that it’s a crime not to immerse yourself in it. I’m a slave to my stomach when I travel – in fact I’ve just recently blogged about my current love affair with the cuisine in my current adopted home, Peru

  6. Andrea Nicole Says:

    Hear, hear! My fiance and I never skimp on food when we travel,taking our cues from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and seeking out the local specialties to try. As Camden said: food is generally key to learning about a culture. And as noted, it doesn’t have to be expensive. A good tip is to try the lunch menus of restaurants you otherwise couldn’t afford. Often you can get a fantastic set price meal for a fraction of what you’d pay at dinner. I also agree with Shalabh about drinking. There’s nothing better than spending an afternoon at a cafe with good company and the local beer or wine. I find food to be one of the best aspects of travel.

  7. Joya Says:

    I agree! The reason we save our money for traveling is so that we can not only get to our destination but enjoy it without worrying about anything else. Food is my absolute favorite part of traveling and then going for a nice long walk afterwards. Food markets like La Boqueria in Barcelona and Borough Market in London are some of my favorites and I think are one of the best ways to experience the culture and is pretty economical.

  8. The Backpack Foodie Says:

    Well, as you can see from my alias and website, this issue is close to my heart. 🙂

    I don’t think skipping local food comes down to money, at least not in most parts of the world. In my experience, eating local, simple food ends up costing you a LOT less than, say, a happy meal at McDonald’s.

    Rather, I think even in Europe, food is a discomfort zone for people, and some travelers can’t be bothered with it. For some people it’s transport; for others it’s hotels; maybe it’s toilets. But usually, we have this one zone on which we’re not ready to go crazy cheap.

    For myself, I travel with my spouse, so we always want a double room… Cockroaches is where we draw the line, so we end up looking like princesses in India. But food… I go insane. It costs me peanuts to eat, and having tried both five-star hotels and local joints, I can say that the best meals I’ve ever had were always the cheapest.

    So I think the argument is not so much that you should spend a little extra… What backpackers should do is step outside their comfort zone a little. As with anything else in travel, it’s incredibly rewarding… And it’s how you end up saving money, too.

    Even in France or Germany, say, you can eat incredibly cheap by sampling local food… You may not eat in a brasserie each night, but those jambons beurres will not set you back more than a Big Mac, and are ten times as good.

  9. Colleen Wilde Says:

    Alright!!! I’m glad I have so many fellow Foodies on the road with me!

    @Backpack Foodie: Great website! I’m bookmarking it to pore over later.