Monday, March 12, 2012

Adventures of Cooking in a Hostel - Part 2

Finally, A Full Meal!

At the end of Part 1, I was en route to Queenstown.  Unfortunately, I didn't take many pictures of the food I had during my 2 night stay there.  I stayed at a hostel that boasted a free dinner every night.  Yay!  However, as expected, the free food was well...not that good.  It was sufficient to keep me alive and stave off hunger.  It mostly just looked like slop and well, it actually tasted better than it looked.  However, nothing worthy of a blog post, that's for sure.  I think you would all just feel sorry for me, which you really shouldn't.  Aside from the free dinners, I mostly ate the rest of the breakfast bars I had and I bought a sandwich at a convenience store one day.  That proved to be a terrible idea.  I was going canyoning in the afternoon and I ate my sandwich about an hour before I left for my canyoning adventure.  

When you're doing stuff like this, it's not a good idea to have food in your stomach.  Well, let's just say that the river got a taste of my lunch as well.  The only noteworthy food I had in Queenstown was a Ferg burger.  There's a place called Ferg Burger in Queenstown that's famous for excellent New Zealand beef burgers.  I had some, but eh...maybe because I'm from the land of burgers, I wasn't impressed.  It was good, especially considering what I've been eating, but I prefer the good gourmet burgers back home in the US.  People were telling me how massive this burger is and how delicious it is.  Well...again, maybe I'm from the land of buffets and cardiac disease, but it wasn't THAT big.  It's about a 6" diameter burger.  That's just not that big for US standards.

The cooking begins again in my next stop, Te Anau.  So at this point, it's been 4 days of eating what I can get my hands on for as cheap as I can get it for, except for my Ferg Burger excursion.  That's a lot for me!  I've also been really active going from place to place and doing active, outdoorsy things.  I think my body cried out for a full meal.  Well, there's not a lot to do in Te Anau at night.  As I found out later during my trip, there's really not much to do at night in most New Zealand towns.  This gives me plenty of time to invest in cooking a good meal for myself.  I made a trip to the grocery store and came up with this for $25 NZD (~$20 USD):

I wanted a full meal, so I got some soup, lamb sausages and some veggies.  I figured the "risotto" last time was soupy, so I should just buy soup so it comes out the way I expect it to.  Again, I found pretty good quality ingredients.  The soup was the same organic variety I got last time, the sausages were on sale, and frozen veggies are actually quite nutritious.  Frozen vegetables are flash frozen from vegetables that were harvested at their freshest, so they're actually quite good for you.  Just make sure they are whole veggies, meaning they look like what they are and are minimally processed.  There's yogurt and oranges for the next day.  For some reason, I found myself eating lots of yogurt in New Zealand.  The yogurt just tastes better there!  Maybe it's because I found it very difficult to find non-fat varieties, so I ended up with full-fat yogurt.  That might be why...hmm...

An interesting challenge I discovered is that most hostel kitchens have stovetops, ovens, refrigerators, pots, pans, cutlery and utensils, but NO pantry whatsoever!  I mean not even salt, pepper and oil.  So I guess my challenge was to buy just enough items to make an interesting, deliciously flavored meal without a pantry...oooh, so difficult!  At home, I have a huge, stocked pantry for whatever I want to make.  I remember wanting to make some Indian food one day, even though I've never made Indian food.  I looked up recipes online and discovered that I already had every spice I needed.  This was an interesting challenge for someone like me.  I did have the luxury of having a car for half my New Zealand trip, so I was able to bring my food with me from place to place, but that doesn't mean I want to buy a whole lot of stuff just to use a teaspoon here and a pinch there.  A lot of backpackers carried their food with them from city to city - with or without a car.

This meal is easy to make, nutritious and definitely hit the spot.  I warmed up the soup in a pot, fried up the sausages in a pan and sauteed the veggies.  When cooking raw sausages, a big problem is getting it cooked all the way through.  I usually heat the pan up to medium-high, then put the sausages on one side, then reduce the heat down to medium-low.  I keep it at that temperature for about 4 minutes or so, then flip it over and cook it for another 5 minutes.  It was cooked through at that point.  You could check it by cutting your sausage in the middle and peeking for uncooked meat.  Cooking time varies by the meat and how thick your sausage is.  At this point, I didn't realize that there was no pantry and not even oil, so I didn't buy any pan lubrication.  Luckily, a nice lady let me have some butter from the huge tub she bought.  I used a tablespoon of that to saute my veggies.  Don't defrost your veggies.  Just add them frozen to the pan at medium-high heat.  They'll defrost in the pan.  If you defrost them first, you'll be left with a soggy mess and vitamins seeping out of your veggies and into the watery mess beneath them.  My dinner was done in 20 minutes.  It could have been 15 if it wasn't for the fact that I had to wait for the big pan for my veggies.

Ahhh!!!  Finally!!!  A whole meal!!  You have no idea how happy I was to have this.  It was delightful!  There were picnic benches in the back yard of the hostel.  At 8:30 pm, the sun was still shining, so I enjoyed my dinner al fresco.  However, I didn't realize how much my stomach had shrunken from my paltry meals from the past few days.  I couldn't quite finish my meal.  I also got bored of eating the sausages after the second one.  So I just modified it mid-meal and turned it into this:

It's not a big change, but somehow it was enough to keep my meal interesting.  I did end up finishing it all though.  I was at an OMGSOFULL state!

I also realized that sausages in Australia and New Zealand are made with really finely minced meat.  I don't like it.  It makes the sausage really dense and not very interesting texturally.  I prefer coarse sausage.  I find it maintains its juiciness after cooking and has a wonderful texture that wouldn't bore my palate after eating two.

I cooked up the exact same thing the next morning.  I didn't want to carry around food that needs to be refrigerated/frozen from city to city.  It would go bad or defrost by the time I arrived at my next destination.  I only bought enough refrigerated/frozen foods for the amount of time I would be staying in that city.  I only stayed in Te Anau for one night, before heading off the next morning to Milford Sound, then back to Queenstown in the same day.  I ate the soup with some veggies thrown in for breakfast and had some yogurt.  The veggies and sausage were packed up into plastic bags for my lunch and snack.  It was really interesting eating a sausage out of a plastic bag like a banana during my cruise around Milford Sound.  The food I bought lasted me 2 days.  Really, the pricey items are fruits in New Zealand.  It was relatively expensive, but I felt I needed some fruit in my diet.  The fruit lasted about 3 days...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Adventures of Cooking in a Hostel - Part 1

Pre-packaged Risotto, Yogurt and Breakfast Bars??

Over time, my food blog has evolved into somewhat of a traveling foodie blog.  I've discovered that my international foodie adventures have understandably garnered a great deal of interest.  I mean, what's more interesting than exotic foods and customs from far away lands?  In this new series, I plan on showing you how I've been eating while traveling abroad.  You'll see how my food has evolved over time and perhaps even get some ideas for your upcoming backpacking trips!

First, contrary to popular belief, my overseas diet doesn't entirely consist of eating live animals or finding new, interesting ways to consume desserts.  For a serious foodie like myself, you'd be quite surprised to see how I've prioritized food while traveling.  It all depends on where I'm at, my food options and of course, budget.  

Second, I'm not rich, so I do travel on a budget.  I know, I know, sometimes people wonder if I've secretly won the lottery.  Unfortunately, I did not.  I often stay with friends, at hostels and even with wonderful strangers I've met on  This also means that I eat on the cheap.  I do give myself small indulgences on occassion, but to be honest, the majority of REAL food you'll find in any culture is usually "cheap".  I love searching for real food that locals eat.  That's where I get my kicks.  A majority of the people on this earth don't eat at fine dining establishments and local cuisine must fit within the budget of an average worker.  This doesn't mean it's bad. It often means it's likely more simple, sometimes more interesting, and always adjusted to the local palatte.  It's really hard to find restaurants in touristy towns that serve local food.  You have to look hard for them and ask the locals for recommendations.  Most people I've met overseas don't eat out nearly as much as the average American, so this means that a lot of times, people cook at home.  Unfortunately, if you don't have access to a kitchen or get invited to dinner at someone's place, this option is not available to you while you travel.  This concept of "cheap" local food is also adjusted for places where the standard of living is higher than in the US.  For example, in Europe and Australia, everything is expensive.  I can't think of anything that's more expensive in the US than in those continents - this includes food.

In my most recent trip to New Zealand, I was shocked at the great value I got for the hostels I stayed at.  I often paid less than $30 NZD (~$25 USD) per night in a nice, clean hostel with access to a large, open kitchen.  This is in stark contrast to the hostels I've stayed at all over Europe that have cost more than 30 Euros (~$40 USD) a night in a dilapidated room without access to a kitchen.  I consider myself lucky if I get access to a fridge and a microwave and it's within walking distance to a local laundromat.  Anyway, I took advantage of the fact that I had kitchens to use, so I used them!  New Zealand can be quite expensive, so saving on food is imperative.  I don't think New Zealand and Australian cuisine is intrinsically different than American cuisine.  That was confirmed with my frequent trips to the supermarket.  Sure, I find a few interesting things here and there, but nothing really amazing and different than what I get back home.  This means that I don't feel like I'm missing out if I don't try something new and super-kiwi at every meal.

My first stop in New Zealand is Christchurch.  It's sad that the city is in such ruins from the incessant earthquakes.  I wasn't able to see much of the city and I basically came in for an overnight stay, then left to Queenstown the next day.  I had a particularly tiring entry into the country.  I've never been so scrutinized by customs in any country, EVER!  I had to wait in several long lines because they check everything!  If you've brought medicine, you need to declare it.  If you've brought any outdoorsy gear, you need to have it inspected.  I only brought my hiking pants and hiking boots, but those boots had to be inspected for foreign flora and fauna.  Honestly, who shows up to New Zealand without ANY hiking/camping gear??  That's why the lines were so long.  After a 4 hour flight from Melbourne, a few hours of waiting in inspection lines at Christchurch Airport and a decently long walk to my hostel in unexpectedly chilly weather, I couldn't be bothered with food prep.  I was tired, cold, cranky and needed to eat NOW!  So I walked to a supermarket about a mile away to pick up dinner.  All I thought of was to get something quick, warm and decently healthy.  After traversing the aisles, I ended up choosing a refrigerated package of risotto for dinner (which really came out more like a soup), some yogurt for breakfast the next morning, breakfast bars for quick food whenever I want it and some water.

Does it look like a sad little dinner?  Yes.  However, there are times when all you want is food - NOW!  It could be because you're really cold and had an unexpectedly harassing day or because you're just too exhausted from your amazing day to have time to make a proper meal.  Either way, sometimes food just has to be functional.  I was hungry and cold.  Check and check.  This "risotto" soup was made with good ingredients, minimally processed and had good nutritional value.  It didn't cost much either.  It was about $5 NZD and it was large enough to split into two meals.  I ended up having some of the yogurt as dessert and the rest of the risotto for breakfast the next morning with again, yogurt as my chaser.  The yogurt and some of the breakfast bars ended up being consumed during the 6 hour bus ride to Queenstown the next morning.  Sometimes you just can't be too picky.  All that food cost me $16 NZD (~$13 USD)  for a decently nutritious 24 hours worth of food and some breakfast bars for later.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Strawberry Lamingtons

One of the strange things I enjoy doing while traveling abroad is touring supermarkets.  I want to see if there are any interesting goodies or ingredients I haven't seen before.  I was strolling around a supermarket in New Zealand when I came across this new treat that I haven't heard of before: lamingtons!  Lamingtons are an Australian/New Zealand specialty that's a sponge cake dipped in chocolate or a fruity layer, then covered in coconut.

They were so pretty and the description just sounded so scrumptious that I just had to pick up a package. I got the mixed flavors package that contained chocolate and raspberry lamingtons. I always like to try as many things as I can. =) Oh my goodness, I was not prepared for them to be as delicious as they were. I'm usually a chocolate lover, but I felt like the raspberry lamingtons were better.

Well, I'm back in the US now and trust me, lamingtons aren't exactly a staple at your neighborhood grocery store. Of course, the only thing to do is to just make them myself. I found a wonderful sponge cake recipe from David Lebovitz's Blog and I modified the rest of the recipe to turn them into strawberry lamingtons. I also omitted the middle layer of chocolate, jam or frosting, as some recipes call for because I felt like the plain ones were the best. I suppose if I was in the mood, I may add in the middle flavor layer in the future.

I suppose if you wanted to make it easy on yourself, you could also use store-bought sponge cake.  That would definitely make lamingtons super easy to make.  It's also something fun to make with kids as well, since they would get to have their little fingers messy and the colors are so bright. ^_^

Strawberry Lamingtons

Makes 16 lamingtons

1 sponge cake (or store-bought sponge cake)
1.5 package of strawberry flavored jello (this comes out to 9 oz total)
1.5 c boiling water
1.5 c dessicated coconut (unsweetened)

1) Combine the strawberry jello and boiling water in a medium sized bowl.
2) Stir until all the crystals have dissolved completely.
3) Let the jello cool down to room temperature. If the jello starts to firm up before you're ready for the next steps, put the bowl in the microwave for 10 seconds and stir. Repeat until the jello is liquid again. Then cool the jello again.
4) Place the coconut onto a dinner plate. It may be prudent to only put half the coconut on the plate and refill the coconut plate when the coconut supply runs low.
5) Cut the sponge cake into 16 squares.
6) Dip each face of a sponge cake squares into the liquid jello mixture until it is submerged by 1/8 inch for about half a second.
7) Then roll the sponge cake square around in the coconut to cover it completely.
8) Place the sponge cake on a wire rack to dry and set (approx 10 minutes).

Enjoy! =)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How to enjoy Vegemite

Disgusting, repulsive, gross - all words I've heard people use to describe Vegemite. Of course, being the adventurous foodie I am, I don't take anyone's word for it and I MUST try it myself before passing any judgments. It's honestly not bad at all. It's incredibly salty and has really wonderful umami. I've actually grown to like it a lot. As with most strongly flavored condiments, where people go wrong is when they use too much of it! If you take a shot of soy sauce straight, of course it tastes awful! But a few dashes into a dish could add just the perfect amount of savory depth.

I have to say I didn't have the best first experience with Vegemite. I was on a boat on the Great Barrier Reef and the Aussie crew members were hazing Americans (as a lot of foreigners love to do for some reason) with Vegemite. They told me to take an M&M sized chunk of Vegemite straight. It was really salty, but I didn't find anything repulsive about it at all. Even Aussies don't like Vegemite when eaten in that manner. I learned later that the typical method of enjoying Vegemite is to spread a layer of butter on toast, then follow with an incredibly thin layer of Vegemite on top. It's really quite delicious! The initial flavor is salty, but it coaxes out a really nice sweetness out of the sourdough bread I spread it on. Follow with a good umami lip smack and that's exactly how I enjoy Vegemite!

I highly suggest you give Vegemite a chance before throwing it on your food blacklist. =)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tim Tam Slam!

A few years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to these Australian cookies called Tim Tams. We knew that they paired well with coffee, but it wasn't until the Aussie shop owner mentioned Tim Tam slams that we truly knew how to enjoy a Tim Tam!

A Tim Tam slam is a move where you take a Tim Tam cookie, bite off both ends, dip one end into a mug of coffee and use the cookie like a straw to suck up the coffee. The chocolatey goodness of the Tim Tam cookie mixes in with the coffee to create a delicious mocha-like flavor and the coffee permeates the Tim Tam with a wonderfully warm, decadent coffee flavor. The trick is to get as much coffee as you can before the Tim Tam falls apart from getting soaked in coffee, otherwise it will end up falling in chunks into your coffee.

I just came back from a trip to Australia and New Zealand. On my food checklist was definitely performing a Tim Tam slam in its home country. The origin of the Tim Tam slam is still a mystery to me. It appears nobody I talked to in Australia knew what a Tim Tam slam was, but yet a Kiwi (New Zealander) friend did! If they didn't know what it was, they definitely knew after I was done gushing about it. I felt like a Tim Tam slam pioneer. =)

I met up with an American friend, Becky, in Sydney where she's an exchange student. Before she leaves Sydney, she MUST try a Tim Tam slam. Enjoy this video of me teaching her how to do it. Yes, I know, there are so many "That's what she said!" moments. It was completely unintentional! Hilarious, but unintentional...