A few weeks ago I had a buddy over to my little flat for a meal. We could have gone to Ahn (the corner outdoor eatery) or to Ricky’s Café ?ten paces across from my building’s front gate. As you may already know, finding a cheap, easy and really close place to eat in Thailand is about as difficult as feeding a hungry dog steak. Anyway, my buddy had asked me why I would bother to go out of my way to buy ingredients for a dinner when any number of kitchens along the street of where I lived could feed me for a lot less than the ingredients alone. I thought about his query for a moment?weighing in my love for cuisine that is not always available to me at a particular location, versus that of simply filling-up some excess time?and replied: Shuddup and eat your free food.”
Eventually the meal passed as did the bottle of comparably expensive (to the local beer, that is) red wine as we turned our discussion over to: What it is we like to do most in a new destination?you know, once the local sights have been sighted. We both concluded that immersing ourselves within the local community so we could enjoy the true essence of the place we were domiciling at was paramount. For my buddy, an Aussie who rents his house as a means of prolonged-travel, that more often than not meant exploring the local bars for local women to take home. For me, it was to explore the local markets for new and interesting food items to take home. And, no, it’s not like I\’m a chef, cuisine addict or anything like that. It’s just that, well, in my opinion nothing places a person in the thick of local life and the best a community has to offer like food and the marketplace. For us Americans, however, that may be a difficult concept to grasp if one eats only to survive and shops exclusively at the Safeway or Costco (a warehouse store). But for those of us who have gotten up early on a Saturday morning to check out the unpackaged foods within our town’s outdoor weekend market, or who have gotten excited about the new items at the local Trader Joe’s (a quasi-healthy alternative to the mega grocery stores on America’s west side), you know where I\’m heading with this story.
One of the first things I do, that is after scoring a bicycle or motorcycle, is to explore the nooks and crannies of my new town?that subterranean community where the ?real? happens. In Southeast Asia (okay, all of Asia?but I’ll narrow my focus for the moment) such as Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam, the market is where the action is though it may be so raw that one would be hard-pressed to recognize more than a few food stocks. This tends to be more culinary voyeurism than actual shopping for me. But then there are the marketplaces I’ll frequent that have no concept of genetically modified or radiated foods. Where an awesomely flavorful tomato will last only the duration of when you’ll need to shop next (a day or so) or blocks of tamarind are available with or without the pits. These places rock my world. And before I know it I’ll have purchased with the fervor of a middle eastern housewife ingredients that: 1. I have no idea of what to make of, and; 2. I have no equipment to cook with.
What’s a nomad from the suburban west to do?
Well, problem one is a no-brainer: Google it. If you’ve come home with a root-like vegetable, a branch of leaves that smell and feel like they came from a citrus plant, you may be on your way to some nice tom yam (Thai soup). That’s right bub, search (that notebook of yours isn’t just for work, darn it!) for recipes for the foods of your new location. And get cooking. This takes us to concern number two.
My little flat in Bangkok (it’s so inexpensive that I usually keep it year-round even if I\’m off to another country) is actually like a studio apartment?but smaller. Being only 4×4 meters, with an attached shower room and alcove of a balcony, does not leave much room for visitors?let alone a kitchen. Actually, it leaves no room for a kitchen. Usually when I rent an apartment or bungalow for more than a month I make sure that the place is not only furnished with a desk or table to do my work from, a comfortable bed, and place to stow my stuff, but that it has a furnished kitchen of some kind or at least access to a kitchen area. But when the owner of my apartment said there was no problem with me cooking in that apartment should I decide to buy a ?hot plate? (electric single-burner stove), I knew I’d be able to slap-together a make-shift kitchen using only my balcony sink’s countertop and the hutch (for lack of a better term) where a television once sat before I replaced it with a toaster, electric kettle and cutting board. Now one might be saying: I\’m a nomad. How am I to transport all these domestic accoutrements when even a travel printer is out of the question? The short answer is: You don\’t. And, besides, traditional nomads traveled with a pot and/or pan, matches, and collected wood to cook the stuff they hunted and/or gathered. We nu nomads live in the 21st century. We’ve got discount stores.
Acquiring the basics to cook with, be it an electric pan, mini-gas burner or electric hot plate is as easy as it is cheap. In most developing countries, which is where I nomad the most in, I\’m able to assemble a basic ?kitchen? for about $100(USD). A stove of some sort will run about $40; a skillet, $15; a pot, $10; couple of plates, flatware, drinking glasses, $20. A knife, serving spoon, can opener and whatnot will run about another $15 or less. Afterwards, when it’s time for me to nomad further, I’ll either sell the stuff to that neighboring expat (who was in awe of my ability to eat what I wanted and when), or I’ll simply give it away to someone in need. You know, give back to the community sort of thing.
That said, nothing brings the flavors, smells and excitement of the destinations you’ll be calling ?home? like their food produced from their markets their center of the universe. And few things eliminate homesickness like being able to eat your own stuff, or making new friends by sharing food you’ve made. That’s right, just like home.