Fruit from a market in Sri Lanka.

The Magician’s Travel Kitchen: A Guide to Eating Healthy, Local and Cheap While Traveling

One thing I find difficult about traveling is food. I lose a lot of control over what I eat which makes it hard for me to eat healthy and gluten-free. I lose a lot of control over when I eat too which varies by culture, often resulting in certain foods only being available at certain times (again this can be hard with a gluten-free diet). Other times I have to eat when the family I’m living with does.

I don’t always enjoy the process of going out, searching for a place that accommodates my diet and sorting through a menu in a different language. Also constantly being waited on and handling money can be tiring.

I’ve recently found a solution for all of this: travel with a Parisian cook. I strongly recommend it to everyone.

Early on in our recent 3 month stay in Sri Lanka, my travel partner, Julie-Roxane, returned from the local market with a rice cooker under her arm. Incredible meals followed. I started calling her The Magician.

I was blown away by what seemed to just come second nature to her. We were in a tropical climate (the temperature often in the 90s and 100s) and had no means of refrigeration. Yet with little more than a rice cooker and a visit to the local market every 4-5 days, she was making absolute magic happen. In 3 months we never ate out at the expensive, touristy restaurants in town and were saved from the tyranny of “island time.” More over it was the healthiest I’ve ever eaten—without any sacrifice in the taste department. The kicker? A day’s worth of seemingly endless, fresh whole foods in Sri Lanka ran us about $5/each.

Being a total layman in a kitchen I assumed a rice cooker was for, well, rice. I was astounded. By the end of our stay I realized The Magician had developed a cheap and simple system that would work for travelers in most parts of the world who wanted to eat healthy, local and cheap. I began taking notes.

Here’s a list of the benefits of setting up your own travel kitchen:

  1. It’s versatile. All you need is electricity, a rice cooker, and a local market. No fridge! The main ingredients (rice and lentils) can be found anywhere and you can adapt your recipes depending on whatever local produce is available.
  2. It’s simple. Even I can do it.
  3. It’s cheap. A rice cooker cost us under $10. The other basics came out to about $20 with half of that going to a cutting board. Your daily costs will vary by country, but by purchasing local and avoiding imported foods and restaurants catering to tourists you’ll be eating at near-local prices. In Sri Lanka we spent $5/day on quality, organic ingredients that would have bankrupted me at a Whole Foods.
  4. It’s healthy. It’s all locally grown. You can cook without oil. And steaming preserves much of the vegetable’s nutrients. It’s great for those who are gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan (animal products need to be refrigerated). You know you will feel good and won’t get sick which is not always a guarantee eating at restaurants in developing countries.
  5. It’s delicious. What I found was that a fresh, whole foods diet is naturally delicious. And then there’s coconut milk! I’ve been vegetarian and gluten-free for a while now but it was the first time (outside of the occasional egg) I ate 100% vegan yet I never thought of it as a vegan meal—just an incredibly tasty meal.
  6. It saves time and energy. Yes you will have to purchase and cook the food yourself but you have control over the process.
  7. You’ll get to know the locals and discover new, local varieties of food.
  8. You’ll support the real local economy in a sustainable way. You also will be minimizing your impact by not consuming foods imported from other countries or wrapped in plastic and other packaging.

What follows is an exposé of The Magician’s secrets. It’s a complete guide to setting up your own travel kitchen and taking control of your diet (and wallet) while traveling. It’s a great option anytime you find yourself staying in one place for a little while.1

THE MAGICIAN’S TRAVEL KITCHEN

The Travel Kitchen
Our complete travel kitchen.

The star of the show is the rice cooker. You

The $10 Travel Kitchen
The Magician’s travel kitche

must have one of these. We bought one in Sri Lanka for less than $10. Included with it was a steamer (important!), a serving spoon and a measuring cup.

Here’s the complete list of everything we used in our travel kitchen for two people. Anything truly necessary you should be able to borrow from your host or find on the cheap in town.

2 x meal plates
1 x big bowl (for mixing salads and for collecting food waste)
1 x medium bowl (for salads, guacamole, left overs)
1 x small bowl (for snacks)
1 x cutting board
2 x drinking cups
1 x lemon squeezer (we use a lot of lemons!)
1 x sieve
1 x prep knife (Opinel is a great travel option)
2 x spoons (we either used these or our hands for all meals)
1 x fork (useful for mashing and squeezing lemons)
1 x small camping pot (used as a teapot)
1 x sleeping mat (we prefer to eat most our meals on the ground)
2 x Nalgene water bottles
1 x Steripen Ultra (we bought two 5 gallon water jugs and then refilled them using the steripen which prevents us from creating a lot of plastic waste and saves money)
Ziploc freezer bags, quart-sized w/ zipper (I would never travel anywhere without a stash of these…so useful!)
Reusable shopping bags (most markets use plastic bags)
Dish towels (for drying, covering fruit and leftovers, handling hot rice cooker)
Mesh bags (for organizing small food items like ginger, turmeric, nuts, etc.)

THE METHOD

In this section I’ll give you a few basic, interchangeable recipes that are all you need. After I’ll share general tips about the entire process from market to mouth.

We ate two main meals a day: a breakfast (fruit) and dinner (cooked meal) and then snacked in between. We’d usually also have some leftovers from dinner, which when covered overnight, stayed good the following morning without refrigeration. Although the general method is repetitive, we never tired of it. The fruit and veggies we ate varied every week with what was at the market and the great thing about fresh, whole foods is that they are naturally delicious.

Fresh, simple and healthy meals made with the travel kitchen.
Meal time!
YOUR MAIN MEAL: Cooked red lentils, rice and veggies.

You can add a salad and sauce to this or just eat it alone if you want something simple. The key to the base is rice and lentils which are easy to cook, keep well and fill you up. These are your staples, which you’ll build your meals around. If gluten isn’t an issue you can add other grains as well but we didn’t. You will cook the lentils and the rice at the same time, but the lentils take a bit longer to cook. We used red lentils which cook faster than green lentils and would likely take about 20 minutes longer to cook.

  1. First cut up a few garlic, onions, chili and ginger for taste and throw in the empty pot.
  2. Add a cup of red lentils.
  3. If you want to add some veggies (not necessary however, we often did just rice and lentils) you can add them now. You will cook the bulk of your veggies in the steamer in a minute (see below). We usually added one of the following veggies to our rice and lentils: carrots, leeks, butternut squash, green beans.
  4. Once everything is in the pot, fill it with water so that there’s approximately an inch layer of water above your ingredients.
  5. Set to cook.
  6. Immediately cut up any veggies you want to steam (this will be the bulk of your veggies for the meal). Regulars for us were beets, eggplant, green beans, bell peppers, potatoes, squash, okra, and carrots.
  7. Put your veggies in the steamer tray so they steam while the lentils are cooking. Put them on as soon as you’ve finished prepping them so the veggies have plenty of time to cook.
  8. After the pot boils for 10-15 minutes add the rice. We do 2 – 2.5 cups of rice for every cup of lentils. Add more water so that again there is an inch layer above. Add about half a tablespoon of salt. Give it a good stir. Put it on cook.
  9. Let rice cooker do its magic (20 – 30 minutes).
  10. When the button on the rice cooker pops up (is on keep warm instead of cook) wait for another 10 minutes to allow the rice to finish cooking.
  11. Voila! It’s ready to eat.
  12. If you are making a sauce, transfer the rice and lentil mix into a bowl so you can use the pot to cook the sauce.

Prep time: 10 – 15 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes

YOUR SAUCE: Steamed Veggies & creamy coconut milk.

The sauce isn’t necessary but if you are a foodie it’s worth the extra effort for the flavor alone. It’s also nice to give the lentils and rice something to soak up. If you make a sauce you’ll use your steamed veggies from the last section. The sauce will usually keep if you cover it and eat next morning but always check it before eating.

Salad with avocado, rice and lentils, and a yellow coconut milk sauce.
Salad with avocado, rice and lentils, and a yellow coconut milk sauce.
  1. Dice onions, garlic, ginger, chili peppers.
  2. Once the rice and lentils are cooked from previous section empty and clean your cooker.
  3. Place a weight on top to keep the pot in the cook position (we used a lemon squeezer).
  4. Add a couple table spoons of oil (if you choose, otherwise skip, we used coconut oil which helped enhance the flavor)
  5. Put on cook so the oil heats up.
  6. Once the oil is hot throw in the diced onions, garlic, ginger and chili peppers.
  7. Immediately add a quarter tablespoon salt and curry powder to taste.
  8. Let cook until the onions soften and become translucent (approx 3-4 minutes).
  9. Add your steamed veggies and stir.
  10. Add coconut milk (enough to cover the veggies, for us this was 1-2 small boxes or 200 – 400 ml), stir and cover.
  11. Let cook for approx 20 minutes (you can do less but it will be less flavorful).
  12. Add salt and curry powder and spices to taste.
  13. Voila! It’s ready to eat.

Prep time: 5 – 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 – 30 minutes

Here’s our favorite sauce recipes:

Green – potatoes, butternut squash, okra (lady finger).
Yellow – potatoes, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, jackfruit seeds (we only use these in the sauce, I wouldn’t recommend eating them just steamed).
Purple – potatoes, butternut squash and beets.
Red – Banana pepper, potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes. This one is like a ratatouille. Sautee the onions, garlic and banana pepper. Then add the cooked eggplants and cut up raw tomatoes and a splash of water and cover. Let cook 20 minutes (this will make the tomatoes juicy). If you want you can add water or coconut milk at the end to thin out the sauce or add flavor.

YOUR SALAD: greens, raw veggies, fruit.

Salad won’t keep so only make as much as you will eat.

  1. Finely chop onions and garlic.
  2. Prep either a leafy green or cabbage (greens don’t keep without a fridge so we’d have greens the first day after a market run and then cabbage the following days)
  3. Add whatever you want: tomatoes, carrots, cucumber, bell peppers, nuts, avocado.
  4. Add bananas or mangos (the idea is to add a little bit of fruit for sweetness which balances the bitterness of the greens or cabbage)
  5. For a Sri Lankan touch add some spicy sambol on top (shaved coconut mixed with chili powder)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Salad with guacamole and spicy Sri Lankan sambol.
Salad with guacamole and spicy Sri Lankan sambol.
YOUR DRESSING: Guacamole.

Prep the guac just before eating so it doesn’t sit long.

  1. Finely chop onions and garlic (prep at the same time as you do for the salad).
  2. Small tomato finely chopped.
  3. Avocados!
  4. Add lemon juice, salt, pepper to taste.

Prep time: 5-10 minutes

CHICKPEAS!

For a protein boost (you get much of your protein from the lentils) and just because they are delicious we cooked a side of chickpeas every few days. Chickpeas won’t keep so only make what you will eat.

  1. Soak them in water overnight or for at least 5 hours.
  2. Drain, put in rice cooker, cover with fresh water and set to cook. It takes roughly 90 minutes to cook but it’s always best to taste to be sure.
  3. 10 minutes before finished add salt (salt added earlier makes legumes take longer to cook).
  4. Rinse with water (sterilized or filtered) and let cool down.
  5. Serve with sliced garlic and onion because that’s what they do in France.
YOUR BREAKFAST: Fruit bowls.

Ahh the heaven that is eating breakfast out of a fruit bowl. Easily one of the most satisfying things in this life.

Papaya passion bowl – The best breakfast…ever. I had one of these every day. Slice a papaya (the bigger the better…ALWAYS) in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds (they are ok to eat if you want). Fill each half up with sliced banana. Add a couple passion fruit on top and squeeze fresh lemon juice to finish. Enjoy life. It doesn’t get better than this.

Papaya bowls with passion fruit and banana
Papaya bowls with passion fruit and banana

Watermelon pineapple bowl – Cut up half a pineapple and slice open a few passion fruits. Cut a watermelon in half lengthwise. Squeeze lemon juice over it. Eat a few scoops and then fill it in with sliced pineapple and passion fruit. Eat the seeds! They are the most nutritious part of the watermelon.

Watermelon bowl with pineapple and passionfruit
Watermelon bowl with pineapple and passionfruit
YOUR SNACKS

Things that you can just grab and eat: apples, bananas, dates, cashews, almonds, peanuts, peanut butter, avocado, jackfruit, coconut.

For a fancy snack mash a few bananas with passion fruit and lemon juice and add peanuts or coconut (eat with a spoon).

Snacks in Sri Lanka!
Snacks!
YOUR TEA / COFFEE / WATER

You can use the rice cooker to boil water if you don’t have a filter or sterilizer.

We always had a pot of ginger turmeric tea on. To make this cut up a root of ginger, add some fingers of turmeric (or turmeric powder) and squeeze a few lemons and bring to a boil and then pour. We added some fresh ginger and turmeric to the mix every couple days to keep the tea strong and then tossed everything out and started fresh once a week.

For coffee just add grinds to the water and bring to a rolling boil then pour. You can use a sieve but it’s not necessary, the grinds will sink to the bottom.

PRO TIPS

Shopping in a food market in Sri Lanka
AT THE MARKET
  • If the market is close by, don’t buy more than a day or two’s worth. This way your produce will always be fresh.
  • Be loyal to your shops. You’ll develop rewarding relationships with the locals. Cader, one of our regular shopkeepers, gifted us a wine bottle full of fresh, local honey when he found out we were leaving after 3 months! It was some of the best honey I’ve ever tasted.
  • If you have a lot of shopping to do, store your purchases as you go in a shaded shop so you don’t exhaust yourself or bruise the fruit.
  • Haggle. It’s expected in most markets.
  • Before you buy on your first trip, go around and find out the accepted market prices per kg for the produce you want so you know the fair, local prices.
  • If shopping for 3+ days, with fast ripening fruits aim to buy 1/3 ripe, 1/3 near ripe and 1/3 not ripe so that they will ripen as you need them. Sensitive fruit that ripen fast include papayas, mangos, bananas, passion fruits, avocados, etc.
  • You’ll usually have the best selection in the morning.
  • Look for what’s in abundance. This produce will likely be cheaper and higher quality.
  • Pick your own fruit, check anything your shopkeeper suggests.
  • If you are in a tropical touristy area buy your fruits first as most other travelers won’t be buying vegetables.
  • If you see a fruit or veggie you don’t know ask the shopkeeper. They can explain how to prep or eat it and will often let you sample it. Explore!
Buying fresh fruit in Sri Lanka
Abdul was our main fruit man in Sri Lanka.
AT HOME
  • Remember to wash any fruit and veggies that you will eat raw with sterilized or filtered water. You don’t need to do this if you aren’t eating the outer protective skin.
  • Use lemon juice on everything! Adding a little acidity brings out flavor and reduces the need for salt or oil. You can use passion fruit this way too. Lemon juice also helps avocados keep longer.
  • We used salt and curry powder for cooking and chili powder and crushed pepper as condiments. We found it’s really all we needed and allowed us to enjoy the natural flavors of our ingredients.
  • Batch your tasks to save time. For example slice all the onions for the entire meal at once.
  • You can fry things (as long as you have a weight to hold down the pot). We occasionally fried plantains, eggs and gluten-free pancakes but it takes a while and can be tricky.
Gluten-free banana chocolate pancakes with papaya and pineapple. Made with The Magician's travel kitchen.
Gluten-free banana chocolate pancakes with papaya and pineapple. Made with The Magician’s travel kitchen.
  • Cook for three if there’s two. Then you will have an easy breakfast or lunch for the next day (I usually had avocado and rice with chili pepper and lemon juice). Although the lentils in your rice/lentil mix will keep, cooked legumes on their own don’t keep very well. If something feels off trust your taste buds and throw it out.
  • You can boil eggs in the cooker as well. Add water and some salt. Bring to a boil. Drop in your eggs. Remove after 5 minutes if you want to keep them runny or cook 8-9 minutes if you prefer them hardboiled.
  • If you will only visit the market every few days (we went every 4-5) organize your table using the FIFO principle: first in, first out. Check your fruits each day so that any that are ripening too fast get eaten quickly.
  • Using a timer is good but the only way to truly know when something is cooked is to taste it.
  • We used an insect poison in chalk form to protect the table from ants which deterred them without killing them. You can likely find something similar in town or by asking your host.
PREPPING FRUITS: Because I didn’t know.

Pineapple – Slice off the ends. Then slice in half lengthwise. Then shave off the outer skin with a knife. Then cut into quarters length wise. Slice off the inside corner of each quarter, which will be harder than the rest of the fruit.

Mangos – Ready to eat when soft. Check often because they can ripen quickly. Lay lengthwise and slice off a third on both sides (as far as you can go without hitting the core which is solid). Cut the mango into cubes while still in the skin and then flip them inside out and eat them off the skin. Peel off the strip of skin from the core and suck the meat off the edges. Don’t eat the mango skin.

Another one of our preferred fruit vendors in Pottuvil.
Another one of our preferred fruit vendors in Pottuvil.

Avocado – Ready to eat when soft. Check often because they can ripen quickly. Cut in half, remove the seed and slice into strips lengthwise with a knife. Then scoop out with a spoon.

Papaya – Good to eat when they are a yellowish orange. Cut in half, scrape out the seeds and grab a spoon! Don’t eat the skin.

Passion fruit – Best when the skin has a wrinkled, dry texture. Don’t keep too long though or they will start to ferment. Do a quick sniff to catch any that have gone off.

Coconuts – Ask Sante, your barrel chested host, to whack open with his machete.

THE MAGICIAN

The Magician responsible for the travel kitchen.
Julie-Roxane AKA The Magician.

*Featured image is of our kitchen table after a visiting the local market in Pottuvil, Sri Lanka.

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.