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Eating and drinking is one of the most pleasurable things we can do while backpacking - and also one of the most expensive. Learn how to lessen the blow with our guide to eating cheap meals while travelling.
There’s nothing in this world finer than travelling to far-flung locales and tasting the local fare. When travelling food becomes more than just a way to stay alive, it’s an insight to the way local people live, a tangible and tasteable lesson in local custom, environment and history. This is no time for dieting, eating while on the road is justified gluttony, a guilt-free opportunity to say yes to whatever is offered and an excuse to overindulge in the name of being cultured.
Unfortunately, this utter pleasure can come at a cost, with multiple daily tasting tours along a place’s gastronomic history adding up. What a conundrum to be in, not wanting to scrimp and save your way out of an honest experience, but wanting to save those hard-saved backpackers’ bucks! But look, the locals and savvy visitors have authentic daily breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch, afternoon tea, snack and supper experiences without breaking the bank. In fact, it’s not drawing a long bow to assert that eating on the cheap is indeed the most authentic way to experience a destination’s culinary culture. Let us teach you how.
Get somebody to cook for you
By far and away the cheapest and most authentic way to experience somebody’s eating and drinking culture is by having them prepare it for you. Mama’s dumplings, papa’s special sauce, ol’ grandma Francesca’s famous focaccia, uncle Ramon’s unbelievable risotto – all served up at the family table, all free of charge. Sounds ideal, but difficult to organise; you can’t exactly go around inviting yourself to family dinners now, can you? The best way to secure these kinds of invites is to ingratiate yourself with the local community. Spark up conversations with strangers, help old ladies with their shopping, frequent the same stores and actually get to know somebody, and ask them questions about what they eat and how they prepare certain local foods (with a healthy dose of hint dropping). If you’re charming enough, and look a little bit starved, you may have nonna shoving meatballs down your throat before you know it.
Ew, we know, cooking for yourself while on holiday, but look, getting into a supermarket, local market, farmers’ market or green grocers is a really comprehensive way to get to know a place intimately, exploring a culture in its raw form, before it’s made its way to frypan and mouth. Generally raw ingredients are plentiful and wonderful in Europe and many cuisines make use of few ingredients carefully selected and prepared simply; Italian pizza and paste uses very few toppings, all selected for their freshness and taste. When you are preparing your own food, be it cooked dishes or simple sandwiches, ask around and see what the locals would eat, and try not to go for the cheapest produce. A simple ham sandwich in Spain can be made with either sliced luncheon meat, or with acorn-fed jamon serrano, and the difference of a couple of euros at the checkout will mean that your eating experience is all the more authentic.
Street and fast food
For when you need a quick food fix, but can’t be bothered cooking for yourself or breaking the budget, street food is your best bet for a cheap, filling eat. In Europe there isn’t really the street food culture of Asia, nor will you find food trucks on every corner like in Latin America, but there is a flourishing kebab scene that will more than sustain you. From Berlin to Barcelona you will find streetside restaurants serving up quick, hot and meaty wraps of well-seasoned meaty goodness (or falafel), soaked in whatever sauce you like, and a few you’ve never heard of. The kebab scene, sometimes known as shawarmas ou gyros, is a reasonable way to get some tasty nutrition on the run, and totally acceptable even when you’re not stumbling home wasted. It’s not the most authentic fare, but it will do the job while you’re on the run.
Free food in bars
A European speciality. Depending on where you are in Spain, and Italy, free food will be offered to all patrons buying drinks. In parts of Andalucia, Galicia and around Madrid, Spanish bar owners will take pride in offering increasingly fulfilling and elaborate free tapas to their patrons, with some bars entering into a bit of an arms race to see who can give away the most for nothing. In Italy, the aperitivi culture means that many bars, particularly in the north, will put out buffets of free food, known as stuzzichini and ranging from cheeses, olives and sliced meats, to mini pizzas and pastas, in order to lure in customers during the hours between finishing work and starting dinner, generally around 7-9pm. All you have to do to partake is buy a drink, which you would have been doing anyway.
In many European nations lunch is the most important meal of the day, and off the beaten tourist tracks backpackers can take advantage of the elaborate lunch menus offered to local workers. Lunch menus vary from country to country, city to city and restaurant to restaurant, but will often offer up a variety of first, second and dessert plates to choose from, accompanied with a drink (sometimes a whole bottle of wine, usually at least a quarter) and a coffee, for around €10-15. Make sure you get away from the tourist traps to eat authentic lunch menus (places that don’t have menus in multiple languages are always a good start – bring a translator) and be sure to try something new.
Sometimes, hopefully often, you’ll feel the need to go out and dine with your travelling companions, new friends and locals you may have met along the way. There’s nothing finer in this life than sitting down to a good meal, washing it down with plenty of drinks and discussing the state of the world over some forkfuls of authentic local cuisine. One thing that is common in Europe, and that can mean that you try more things for less money, is the culture of sharing-style plates, which are always considerably cheaper than the main meals. You don’t want to be the person standing sentinel over your plate of pork chops while everyone else is sharing freely amongst themselves. When in Europe, eat like the Europeans do, and order a little bit of everything with the intention of sharing it all. And when the bill comes split it evenly between all, there’s nothing worse than someone nitpicking over what they did and didn’t eat.
“When making your own sandwiches, try not to automatically go for the cheapest meat - I once ate horse by accident because it was cheaper than the ham. Also, making your own food isn’t always cheaper than eating out. It’s tough to buy ingredients for one, and what’s your time worth at the end of the day, especially if you’re not tasting local food? In Asturias, north of Spain, I got a lunch menu that consisted of: seafood soup with half a crab in it, traditional bean and pork stew, lamb chops with local vegetables, a cheesecake for dessert, a coffee, a whole bottle of wine to wash it down and a rum and coke to finish. The price for this feast? A measly €8” – Sam, 26, IT