When others hear that I backpack through third world countries for weeks at a time, “what do you eat,” is one of the first questions I’m asked.
Because, in Jewish culture, mothers aren’t the only ones who worry whether you eat enough.
Everyone worries whether you eat enough.
And ‘what do you eat while traveling’ is an excellent question, really.
Although backpacking is quite easy to manage… kosher backpacking is another beast entirely. If you keep kosher, you can’t simply wait for until you reach your destination to figure out your food options. You can’t just ‘eat with the locals’ or trust that you’ll be able to pick up food along the way.
You have to know exactly what you’re eating before you set off of your adventures.
Or… do you?
Because while many kosher-keeping travelers stuff their suitcases with snacks and protein bars before their vacations, that food only goes so far.
You’re going to need more food eventually. Because you’re a growing boy (or girl).
I used to think that being Orthodox was antithetical to traveling in developing countries. That the observance of laws such as modesty, kosher, and Shabbos made long-term backpacking impossible. Impractical.
Then, I unexpectedly found myself with a pack, a tent, and a sleeping bag strapped onto my back.
Now, developed countries were fine. There was always a store I could visit, cans of chick peas and jars of peanut butter I could buy, a kosher list I could consult.
But in developing countries… well… let’s just say my grandmother would be horrified.
Because I essentially starved. While the villagers around me devoured food such as soup made with ants collected from a nearby tree, chickens slaughtered for that night’s meal, or homemade tortillas made from corn flour that was ground from the neighbor’s farm, I feasted on numerous suppers consisting of nothing more than a carrot and tomato. And breakfasts composed of a bottle of coke and tea.
But slowly, day by day and trip by trip, I learned how to feast like a queen while backpacking.
Want to know how to rough it while keeping kosher? Below is a list of some of the essential things I’ve learned the hard way.
So that you don’t have to.
Gotta love Chabad. Even in places as far flung as Guatemala, Peru, and Cambodia… most of the time, Chabad’s got your back. When arriving in a new country, the local Chabad house is always my first stop and saving grace. Beyond the fact that Chabad serves as a watering hole for Jewish backpackers in their provision of sustenance for both the body and soul, they’ll normally allow you to purchase supplies from their kitchen that will tide you over until you next reach civilization. I’ve always found it useful to buy individually wrapped pitas, if they’re on the menu.
Once, before departing Chabad of Nepal for a 10-day hike, I bought 10 cheese sandwiches. The frigid Himalayan air served as a natural refrigerator and kept them fresh for the next 10 days.
Eat Local Produce:
I am at my healthiest when I travel. I come home with a body that feels entirely fresh and wonderful due to the lack of consumption of mass produced foods. When travelling, I would say that about 75% of my diet is composed of local fruits, vegetables, and grains and 15% of food either brought from home/Chabad.
(The remaining 10% is composed of coke. Literally a lifesaver when you need energy. And all besides for the most remote of villages have it).
Unless you’re going to an extremely rural village for which you’ll need to take most of your food with you, you’ll be able to purchase fruits, vegetables, and rice in any village market. While on a road trip in America, it is common to stop at a gas station for a bag of chips. At a Peruvian rest stop you can pick up some fresh apples.
Produce can serve as a base for soup (which I eat on a nightly basis), salad, or as something to spice up your rice!
Bonus: Observing Kosher while traveling in 3rd world countries may serve to protect you from food poisoning and all sorts of other maladies that travelers frequently suffer.
Even though I want my bag to be as light as possible, I do bring a few important food items from the USA:
Oatmeal: I make a large ziplock bag composed of a mixture of oats, chia seeds, flax seeds, and brown sugar. This satisfying, filling mixture kicks off my day and all I need is hot water.
Nuts: FAT. Nothing fills you like some good, wholesome protein and fat. I always make sure to bring a large ziplock bag of mixed nuts.
Peanut butter: A spoonful a day just… makes me happy. And provides me with some of those fats I was speaking about before.
Rice cakes: This is not the most practical of supplies, but rice cakes have saved me in the past. When I was in a rainforest in Peru, nibbling very slowly on 2 rice cakes was the only thing that kept me from starving. Plus, they don’t get as stale as bread. Most of the time.
Instant lemonade packets: This may seem like a random suggestion, but drinking lemonade on multi-day hikes has filled my body with needed electrolytes when I’ve needed them the most.
Dried Fruit strips: Sometimes, your body just needs sugar. In times of need, these are great and take up barely any room in your bag.
Spices & Oil: I’ve taken to filling stackable pill boxes with different spices. The main ones are salt, pepper, garlic, onion, and cayenne. In order to carry around oil, I fill a small mouthwash container upon arrival. I’ve also started carrying a small ziplock bag of Osem chicken soup flavoring. Because it makes rice, and soup, delicious.
Tea Bags: I just LOVE tea. That plus sugar can serve to hydrate, warm, and provide energy. I bring a whole bunch of tea bags from the US.
When kosher backpacking, there are a few things you’ll need:
- A Pot: I own a small pot (1.5 L) which has a lid that doubles as a frying pan for when I acquire that rare, non-blood-spotted egg.
- A Stove: A portable collapsible camping stove that you can attach to a butane/propane gas canister. These canisters must be purchased in the country you visit, as you can’t take them on the plane. Some countries (such as Zambia and Guatemala) don’t have them anywhere. In that case, you’ll have to use local fires/stovetops and you’ll find this item completely useless.
- A Knife: A sharp knife is essential for travel. Foldable knives are both sharp and safe. Now, I’ve had my knives confiscated more times than I can count because I forget them in my carry on. If that ever happens and you need to buy a knife in another country, you can either kosher it by dipping it in a local body of water that serves as a mikva or, in times of need, giving it as a gift to a non-Jew and then ‘borrowing’ it from them.
- A Spoon and Fork: Aluminum spoons and forks are lightweight and easy to clean.
- Plate, bowl, and coffee cup: Stainless steel, titanium, enamelware, or hard plastic serve as excellent, lightweight, sure-kosher, eating/cutting board surfaces.
When I’m not at a Chabad house, I am 100% pescetarian (I don’t eat meat or dairy when I travel). So how do I make Shabbos special? Fish. I carry a few packets of tuna from the US or buy fish from locals.
When buying fish from locals, kashrus considerations go beyond making sure that the fish have fins and scales. Ask the person you’re buying it from to use your cutting board and knife to prepare the fish so that oils from other sea creatures aren’t getting mixed in with your purchase.
I normally chop the fish up and cook it in my pot or, if I’m staying in a hostel, buy some foil and double wrap it before putting in in the oven.
Shabbos while travelling is always an incredible experience. Whether I’m in a village or a hostel, I work hard to ensure that it is special.
Challah: I always save bread purchased from Chabad or, in countries where there is no Chabad, use (normally very stale) hamotzei wraps that I bring from America.
Wine: For wine, I use beer bought at the last available location.
Meal: The meal always consists of fish and a salad.
Dessert: Fruit purchased at the last available location.
Note regarding locals:
If you’re traveling where people are living, there will be some sort of food. I’ve been in plenty of places where there are no markets, but have been able to buy food from the people who live in the area. Be kind and respectful and, if needed, ask the residents of the area if you can buy a cup of rice, a tomato, or a potato. They normally think it’s weird, but are more than happy to comply.
Does this all seem a little intense? Never fear. You don’t have to begin keeping a raw food diet. In fact, being that I stayed in an apartment for the majority of my time in Zambia, I koshered the oven and cooked Shabbat meals (including challah) with copious amounts of food for about 10 people. Additionally, many countries have some imported products kosher certified products.
By now I have my food packing down to a science. A few hours before departure, I pack my staple items, grab my supplies, and run to the airport. All that I’ve mentioned is just what works for me.
Others carry more luxurious food items. (I met one Jew who was lugging around a container of chocolate spread for a good few weeks. Another Israeli was carrying t’china mix in her bag. Because… t’china.)
In the end, you’ll find your own way of doing things.
Just know that kosher observance doesn’t need to stop you from exploring the world.
Note: Please ask your personal Rabbi concerning any questions regarding kashrut.
Originally Published in Ami Magazine. Image Copyright Rochel Spangenthal.