This will be part of an on-going series on cooking and eating abroad. It is inspired by a story I wrote a long time ago about the surprising lessons you learn from living abroad, and for me, perhaps the most surprising thing is that I’ve found a love of cooking. It is also inspired by the my current cooking situation, which is certainly the most challenging of all the places I’ve lived abroad so far. But more on that in a moment.
Unless you have the money to eat out everyday, if you decide to go to college abroad you will more than likely have to cook. As I describe in some detail in the book, many universities abroad are not residential the way American universities tend to be. This means that students generally do not live on campus and rather live in private off-campus apartments. This also means that you will not have access to breakfast, lunch and dinner at university cafeterias–usually this means only lunch will be available. Therefore, cooking becomes an essential skill that you will probably have to develop at least a little bit that is easily avoided if you live on-campus at an American school. On the one hand, this might be a challenge for some. On the other hand, it is one of the best ways to save money while living and studying abroad.
It is somewhat paradoxical that I developed a love of cooking while living in apartments with decidedly more simplistic kitchens that what I would have had had I stayed in the US. But when you move abroad, and you continue to move from country to country, kitchen equipment is one of those things that definitely stays at home or is sold. I’ve been moving from one partially furnished sublet to another, and therefore I’m always at the mercy of whatever kitchen equipment the main tenant has on hand. Even in relatively rich and developed Western Europe, kitchens in budget-friendly apartments are usually lacking some of the things I would take for granted in an American kitchen. I have only had microwaves on and off, usually only a few pots and pans, small mini-fridges, freezers have been hard to come by, forget about a dishwasher, and certainly things like blenders have been essentially non-existent.
Here in Spain, I have no oven, no wooden spoon, and no strainer! It is a challenge just to make spaghetti! Hell, I don’t even have a coffee pot. Now, I’m not so poor that I probably won’t break down and go get a cheap plastic strainer or a large wooden spoon. But for now, I’m stuck with what I have. After living with kitchens with various amounts of equipment, I’ve come to learn a few tips and tricks for cooking in a minimalist kitchen.
First, budget European apartments will probably not have a microwave, and if they do, they may not have an oven. I think the lack of microwaves stems from the fact that microwavable foods never really caught on in Europe. Convenience grew out of post-war America, when our economy was booming while Europe’s was struggling in the aftermath of the war. So if you’re used to popping in a frozen burrito for dinner or lunch, forget it. Even if you have a microwave, you probably won’t find a lot of ready-made meals (I mention this because my boyfriend said yesterday he had never seen a ready-made burrito when I pulled one of the freezer at a Walgreens-type store, myself amazed). Everything else you use a microwave for can be done on the stove top. The only real reason one really needs a microwave is for reheating leftovers in my opinion, which is also an usual practice in Europe, at least in my experience. Europeans tend not to make too much food with the purpose of saving the rest for later. I think this also stems from a long history of appreciating fresh food, which has only recently come back into style in the US. Furthermore, many Europeans eat a “cold” meal in the evening, which typically amounts to veggies, cold cuts, bread, spreads, and cheese. This sort of meal doesn’t require reheating. But if you’re like me, there are certain American habits that will always stick with you, and I’m still a very big fan of making huge meals in the evening and reheating it later.
If you don’t have a microwave, you can still reheat last night’s dish with some creativity. If you have an oven, you can set the heat to medium, put the food in a baking dish, and slowly heat it, checking on the food often. You can also put a pan in the oven as long as you cover the handle with aluminum foil. However, I prefer to reheat dishes directly on the stove. A rice dish or a stir fry goes back into the pan it was cooked in originally, usually with a little olive oil to make sure it doesn’t stick or burn, and I stir the dish over heat until it seems like it is heated through. This takes more time than a microwave, but it works as long as you pay attention. This also works well with pasta and soups.
If you’re lacking in pots and pans, you should become very good at one-pot meals. One of my favorite one-pot meals, which is also extremely cheap and healthy, is Broccoli Pasta. I’ve made this a bunch of times now and every time I do something a little different…add onions, or different Italian spices, add cauliflower. Soup or chili is another fantastic one-pot meal that essentially only requires a knife, a pot, and a cutting board. Also, chili for me reminds me of home and it is virtually impossible to screw it up, even if you’ve never cooked before. If you can’t find a certain ingredient in almost any chili recipe, you can leave it out and it won’t completely compromise the dish. You can also easily add other ingredients as you see fit. I’ll talk more about dealing with European versus American recipes with their different measuring schemes in a later post, but if your kitchen doesn’t have a set of measuring spoons, it is not that difficult, with some practice, to learn to eyeball-it.
Other recipes to keep your arsenal besides simple pasta dishes and soups are sandwiches and stir-fries. Both require only a few ingredients and only one or no pans. I’ll leave the issue of finding familiar ingredients to another post, but I’ll just briefly mention here that some ingredients you take for granted as easy to find and cheap may be neither in a foreign country. Americans consistently complain about the lack of peanut butter abroad. My general complaint is usually the lack of tortillas, or the prohibitive cost of such a simple ingredient. Suffice it to say that with any recipe you use, you may have to get creative about substituting ingredients. You’ll find cheddar cheese in Europe, but it is usually more expensive here than in America, so you could substitute any of the other absolutely amazing European cheeses in the grilled cheese recipe I linked to above.
Finally, another strategy for cooking in a minimalist kitchen is to consider recipes and meals that require no cooking whatsoever. I’m thinking here of salad primarily but you could also try some of the thousands of raw recipes that have been exploding all over the internet as of late. This may be a bit too experimental for some, and I have to admit that I’m not exactly a raw-foodie, but there are quite a few really tasty and cheap raw recipes. This is my favorite raw recipe, and my favorite salad that I make fairly consistently. You’ll notice that the salad recipe calls for a food processor, which I’ve only had while living in Jerusalem, where my roommate was a serious cook so she happened to have all kinds of fun equipment to play with. I’d love to have a food processor one day, but I’ve learned through experimentation that generally you can get by without one by simply chopping the ingredients as finely as possible, except when the point is to make a very smooth paste.
I hope some of these recipes and tips will help you deal with an unusually minimal or small kitchen when you first move abroad. My advice to find a few good recipes online that include a relatively short list of ingredients, contain common ingredients you can find easily abroad, and can be made easily without any fancy equipment. As you ease into your life abroad, especially if you find an apartment you’ll be living in for the duration of your
international program, you can probably invest in some select kitchen equipment to make your life a little easier, and of course you will want to learn about the local cuisine. You may even want to learn how to make some of the local staples. But learning to get a long in the kitchen, especially a minimalist one, even if you don’t fall in love with cooking, is a life-long skill. It is just one of the many unusual skills you develop when spending a considerable time abroad.
Have any tips or recipes for making cheap, healthy, and simple meals that require little skill or few pieces of kitchen equipment? I’d love to hear about them! Or have you spent time abroad and have any cooking tips to share that helped you get along? Share those too.