For a traveler, this is where it all comes together.
Where stories of romance are swapped.
City excursions are planned.
Hangovers are dealt with by someone else’s generous pot of coffee.
It’s the hostel kitchen. And in some parts of the world, it’s dying out.
I spent 3 months backpacking through Southeast Asia last year. During that whole time, I encountered less than 3 hostels that actually let you cook your own food. And even then it felt bothersome, like we were doing something odd, not really encouraged.
It’s as though in borrowing the hostel idea from a long European tradition, newer hostels have missed a key ingredient: the communal kitchen.
A lot of travelers are okay with this. They look at the ultra cheap restaurants in Vietnam and easy to find street food in Bangkok and say, ‘Why would I bother cooking?’
And they raise a good point.
Hostels are also okay with passing on a kitchen. Hostel kitchens make zero money. In fact, it’s just another space to clean. A hostel restaurant, on the other hand, can be a great added profit stream for hostel owners.
Another good point.
But by skipping on the kitchen, we’re changing the backpacker experience, and not in a good way. Our survival skills aren’t being tested anymore. Our ability to go haggle with locals at the market is fading. We’re being spoon-fed Wi-Fi and on-site meals, and it’s making us soft.
Why does any of this matter?
Because the term “hostel” actually means something.
Hostels are different from hotels in key ways. For one thing, they’re self-catering. It’s a do-it-yourself experience.
Traveling in hostels isn’t about relaxing so much as exploring. There isn’t much luxury at a hostel, although a lot of them really have cleaned up over the years. Travelers at a hostel are living as simply - and cheaply – as they can.
And they’re usually not trying to do it alone, even if they’re traveling solo.
That’s why the common area is so important. This is one area where newer hostels are totally killing it. Swimming pools, yoga classes, free tattoos. In a lot of ways, hostel travel has gotten a lot more fun over the years, mostly due to a huge demand from young travelers.
In 2012, young travelers spent $217 billion on travel.
And the hostel business has heard the call. Hostel World, one of the best known sites for booking hostels worldwide, now advertises 33,000 properties in 170 countries.
But as hostels spring up everywhere from beachfronts to the foot of castles, some of them are choosing to skimp on kitchens, and they’re leaving something crucial behind.
Because the hostel kitchen is where it all started, where the truest of backpacker bonds were made, over fried egg breakfasts with toast and jam.
Over “Hey, can I borrow some bread until later?”
And, “Dude, you said that yesterday.”
Food is a language of its own. It speaks about who you are, where you came from. When someone from another country cooks for you in a hostel, they’re saying something. They’re saying “this is a part of me, why not try some?”
Even if it’s just beans and toast, spaghetti with store-bought sauce and vegetables, bread and cheap wine - when someone cooks for you at a hostel, they’re telling a story about who they are.
The best thing you can do is tell them something back.
And the best part is, it doesn’t matter if you’re a terrible cook. Because it’s a *@$#ing hostel, not some Gordon Ramsay special.
I’ve had some of my best meals on the road and made some of my best friends in the hostel kitchen. It’s not about the food so much as the company. Our crew in Barcelona stuck together for 7 days before we parted. We’d beach during the day, club at night, and cook meals for each other in between.
Our knowledge of food may have been limited, but when we brought it all together, we were able to build off one another, bouncing around ideas and forging new food territory.
It was the ultimate in food synergy. We all contributed each night, whether it be through shopping, cooking, or doing the dishes. It made us a community – a community for 7 days, but a community I bet none of us will ever forget.
And after every meal we were proud of what we made, even when it tasted like shit. It was our shit, the sum total of our food knowledge, tossed in a pot and left to simmer on medium.
It brought us together, and it can do the same for you.
I’ve met a lot of people on the road. Bar nights, nature hikes, motorcycle rides. Sadly, I can’t remember much about a lot of them. But the ones I shopped with, cooked for, and ate meals next to are still there, clear as day.
Yes, the restaurant down the street makes better food than you. And yes, you should try it. One of the best parts of traveling is eating local foods, which you can only do by letting local chefs cook for you.
Don’t skip that. Eat what you want. In fact, eat it twice.
All we’re saying is, remember the kitchen.
Remember that cooking, especially when it’s with a crew of people pulled together from around the world, can be a lot of fun.
Remember that for the briefest of moments, you’re trapped in this magical place called a hostel, living with people from all over the world. It’s your chance to learn something about them, and share something about you.
Some things are easier to say with boiling pasta than with words.
Use anything and everything you want. Wine from Chile. Kimchi from Korea. Spaghetti sauce from Italy. Spices from India. Find the local market, ask questions, use what you know, share your knowledge, and cook a meal together.
Even just one.
Even if it’s the worst meal any of you ever have (it won’t be, not with all those creative ideas coming together) you’ll still have a great time.
It’ll still bring you closer.
And hostel owners, this one’s for you. Remember the definition of a hostel. Not just some bunk beds and a restaurant, but a home base for explorers, some of whom want to cook in your kitchen, want to try making some food of their own, want the experience of buying food locally.
And uh, want to save money.
You can keep your restaurant – in fact we hope you do. It makes life easier for everyone. Just have a kitchen, too.
Make room in the floor plans for that rare magic that you only find on the road, for those relationships forged over simmering garlic, makeshift sauces, and meals that taste good so long as they’re shared with good people.
Make room for the hostel kitchen.
Because otherwise, it’s just a hotel with bunk beds.
Banner image provided by Anwarrovic via Flick