A Guide to Cooking Food in Hotel Rooms - Microwave Meals Optional
It is great fun to travel, and it is great fun to eat, but sometimes eating at restaurants day in and day out gets old. Most people are under the impression that they have to eat out- or else dine in on expensive room service food. Thankfully, there is another option: in-room cooking!
For foodies, in-room food prep is a delightfully novel way to assemble meals. For culture-mongers, buying groceries for in-room consumption is one of the best ways to get to know a new place, as grocery stores happen to be some of the most culturally rich venues available. For picky eaters, in-room cooking allows for greater control over quality and ingredients. For everyone, hotel room cooking can be a fun challenge and creative vacation activity; one definitely worth trying!
Hotel room cooking can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be; it all depends on the ingredients you purchase. The very easiest options are frozen microwave meals (if you're lucky enough to have a microwave in your room) or simple assembly meals, such as sandwiches. More intermediate options include instant noodle dishes, which require the use of your coffeemaker. Advanced dishes include pastas and grains, which either need to be heated or boiled in water.
If you choose to purchase fully prepared meals (be they fresh or frozen) from grocery stores, you still have the option to improve them (a la Fancy Fast Food), so keep that creativity going! That said, eating prepared grocery store meals is by no meals a cop out- especially if you're in a country such as Japan, where convenience stores and grocery stores offer super delicious dishes that are fresh and ready to go.
Should you prefer to prepare things from scratch, keep in mid that some ingredients are easier to work with than others:
- Of all vegetables, the easiest to work with in hotel rooms are cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, and mushrooms. Bagged salad is convenient, if you have room for it in your minifridge. Avoid any vegetables that need to be cooked thoroughly, or are large and messy to prepare.
- Of all grains, couscous and oatmeal are the easiest to prepare in a microwave or with boiling water. Dry pasta is nearly impossible to cook, and rice, even with the conveniences of a microwave, is not very easy to reconcile within the confines of a hotel room.
- Of all meats, small packaged meats (such as lunch meat) are your best bet. No raw meat! Please!
- Of all cheeses, those sold in smaller packages are best. Go for cheeses in resealable containers unless you're willing to buy additional storage materials for uneaten cheese. Also consider getting little snacks from gourmet cheese mongers. Local cheeses are both delicious and a wonderful way to enjoy the unique features of the area you’re visiting.
- With regard to dairy- single use packages are best, even though they're wasteful and more expensive. Let's be honest- room is limited! We must deal with it!
- With regard to bread- fresh breads of any country can reveal so much about it- as well as expose a huge variety of approaches and ingredients (e.g. Japan has super light, fluffy white bread made with rice flour, while in Germany you can find the most delicious, dense, nutty whole grain loves in the world), so buy fresh if you can! If you must purchase packaged bread, go for smaller packages.
- With regard to spices and condiments- again, going with small containers is the best way to go; you might also want to bring along some of your own in small packages, or even snag some ketchup, salt, and pepper form a fast food restaurant.
Hotel Room Hacks
How much do YOU hack your hotel room?
- Does your hotel room have a microwave? If so, you can make a wide variety of dishes, from frozen dinners (not so exciting) to aromatic rice simmered with vegetables. If you hotel room does not have a microwave, frozen foods are out of the question for the most part.
- Does your hotel room have a refrigerator? And possibly a freezer? Many hotels offer minibars in small fridges. These fridges make storage of perishable items possible, meaning you can purchase cheese, meat, and veggies in slightly larger amounts and use them over a period of days. "But there's no room!" you say, "The minibar is stuffed with DRINKS!" Not to worry, my friend. You can simply empty it out and neatly line up the un-purchased drinks on a visible shelf so you're not charged for them. When you check out, put them back in their original locations, and there will be no problem.
- Does your hotel room have a coffeemaker? Possibly in the form of a water boiler? If you have a coffeemaker, you have boiling water. If you have a water boiler, you have boiling water available in an even more convenient form. This water can be used for heating foods (such as fresh pasta) as well as cooking some grains (such as couscous)
What to Pack or Buy
- Plates and Utensils- While hotel rooms offer a lot when it comes to food prep amenities, they do NOT offer much when it comes to dishes and eating utensils. For this reason, I recommend bringing a bowl and some utensils with you- this saves you from eating out of a coffee mug with the hotel's teensy teaspoons. If you don't feel like packing your best china, by all means buy something once you arrive! Shopping for cool plates and bowls is ridiculously enjoyable when in another country, and they make for fun souvenirs. If you are hesitant to purchase a plate and bowl that do not match with your current collection, consider purchasing interestingly shaped ramekins and ceramic tart pans instead- they can be used for baking at home, and make perfectly adequate plates and bowls while you're on the road- plus, they're typically microwave safe!
- A travel-sized food scale- If you don't have one of these, it's time to get one. Food scales are wonderfully convenient in that they allow you to measure food without a measuring cup, which saves a lot of space (and time!), plus produces fewer dirty dishes. Of course, you will not need a food scale if you're just going for basic things, so this is an optional purchase.
In-Room Cooking Tips
- Try something new- Grocery stores in different countries offer all sorts of new foods you might not be familiar with (heck, even the same foods often taste wildly different). Give them a try!
- Take some risks- Making delicious sandwiches- and even sampling foreign frozen dinners- can be fun, but it's not nearly as amusing as making something hot from scratch! Get creative! Push the limits of microwave and coffeemaker cuisine!
- When preparing quick-cooking grains such as couscous- follow these steps: (1) Weigh out the correct proportions of liquid to grain (for couscous, one part grains to two parts water or broth works), (2) Boil the liquid and add it to your grains (3) Cover your bowl with a shower cap (provided by most hotels) to allow the grains to cook; wait five minutes (5) Fluff and serve- with whatever garnishes or toppings you may like. If you want to prepare a more flavorful dish, bring some spices with you and add them to the grain before cooking, or use a spice pack from a box as directed.
- When preparing fresh pasta- (be it noodles or ravioli / tortellini), simply put the pasta into a bowl and cover it with boiling water. After the noodles have had time to heat (you may want to change out the water once if they're ravioli or tortellini, since they take longer to heat through), remove them with chopsticks or another utensil, or carefully strain them using a utensil to prevent the bowl's contents from sliding out.
- Avoid boiling things directly in a water boiler- it gets messy and could damage the device, which is a big time no-no. I have cooked some things directly in water-boilers, but they were all in those metal pouches, and I always prefer to heat things in a separate bowl, so as to be kind to the hotel room appliances.
- By going to local grocery stores, you are given a good idea of what the locals really eat, as well as how they live (e.g. Do they buy food in large or small portions? Do they bring their own bags? How big are the stores? What kinds of foods are the most popular?)
- By going to local grocery stores, you are also given an idea of what the country works (e.g. just by looking at ingredients, one can tell what crops the country subsidizes)
- You may end up with some new favorite foods- as well as some odd cooking skills that may come in handy someday!
- You can save a great deal of money
- You can eat exactly what you want and when you want it
- You can enjoy eating freshly prepared food in your room without ordering room service
- You may end up bringing some some cool souvenirs (such as plates or other cooking tools purchased during your trip)