There are few things that put you as intimately in touch with a place and its people as cooking. Every step, from deciding what to make to hunting through shops, markets, and nearby farm-stands for ingredients can be an exercise in discovery.
Take this simple lentil curry as an example.
A bag of lentils will hardly cost you a dollar or two. Combine with a few dollars worth of carrots, potatoes, and ginger, then simmer in chicken broth with a dash of garlic and curry powder and you have hearty, healthy lunches for a week. In that way, cooking is an excellent way to stretch a travel budget.
Make a curry in England (where I was when I first tried this one) and you’ll make new friends quickly.
Mention the word curry, or a word that sounds like it might be curry — current, carafe, corral — and watch as the eyes of the nearest Brit light up with joy and anticipation. For more than two-hundred years the British have had a proper fascination with the stuff, ever since first encountering India, and by extension food with real flavor.
They took to it like, well, like the British took to anything back in those days (colonizing little buggers), and have been obsessed ever since. Or at least, that’s what I gathered during wine-fueled late-night conversations of my autumn stay in Wiltshire. Food (or maybe it was the wine) has a way of bringing people together.
Of course if you want to cook, you first need a kitchen, and that means you need to get creative about where you choose to stay.
AirBNB has made it easy for people to rent apartments and even houses in more than 190 countries most of which come with fully-stocked kitchens. For travelers on a more restricted budget there are affordable hostels, and options like CouchSurfing, WorkAway and WWOOF. In addition to giving you a place to cook, these accommodations put you in direct contact with the people in-country. They give you a more authentic, local experience than could ever be had holed away in a one-size-fits-all room at the Marriott.
Once you have your kitchen, the real adventure begins. Butchers must be found and consulted, farmers visited and vetted. If you’re without a car this can mean long walks through exciting city-streets. It can also mean hours spent navigating through dense forests, using old maps and dead reckoning.
It’s true that you have to travel a bit slower if you want to explore a place this way. But once you try it the slower speed feels right. It feels better. It tastes better. Just like home-made pasta, hand-rolled and hung to dry as garden-fresh tomatoes simmer down on the stove tastes better than microwaved Chef Boyardee.
Cooking is a transformative art. A process by which a few basic things are taken and turned into more than the sum of their parts, bolstered with pinches of this and dashes of that, irrefutably improved through the careful use of energy (in this case, heat) and time.
When you think about it, the very same can be said about travel.