HOSTEL KITCHENS ARE TO COOKING what steampunk is to Victorian drama. All too frequently a schizophrenic collection of pots, pans, half as many knives and twice as many teaspoons as any sane chef could ever need. But the handicapped chaos of the hostel kitchen at dinnertime is no excuse to cook like all your mother ever taught you was how to boil an egg, heat some toast, and mix some reluctant-to-dissolve, slightly gelled instant coffee.

Nossir. For the pride of your parents, and the sake of a species that spent thousands of years mastering the cooking of things, you can do better. The hostel resident that knows some basic recipes is the hostel resident who gets more friends at the dinner table and packed lunch the next day.

We want you to be that hostel dweller. So here are five easy-to-learn, hard-to-burn recipes to put in the back of your moleskine.

To keep things practical, a Good Hostel Recipe(tm) will need to have at least three qualities:

  • It should be vegetarian. For the widest appeal, and because meat — unlike, say, a carrot — decays with a vengeance familiar to the old gods. Eating — or worse, feeding everyone else — off chicken is grounds for a swift and enduring punishment.
  • It should have not more than 4–5 ingredients. Excluding spices, because the one thing everybody abandons in hostel kitchens are spices. So we’ll assume some of those are already available. Moreover, the ingredients should be things you should reasonably be able to find as much in Delhi as Chicago.
  • It needs to be cookable in a hostel kitchen. Which is to limit it to things that can be made in pans, pots, or an oven. No spaghetti maker, muslin bags, or cake moulds.
  • Bonus points if it can be made into a packed lunch. Because it’s a reason to be smug indeed when you find yourself with a snack on hand when you’re waiting in that place, for that thing, much longer than you anticipated.
1. Bread

Obviously. Bread is the one thing people have been making in the most basic conditions since the first of your ancestors got some flour wet. For real bread, you literally need only flour, salt, yeast, and water, plus an oven to stick it into. Here’s a recipe to get you going.

If you think finding yeast is a bit of a luxury, drop it, and combine flour, water, salt, and oil to make parathas (or chapattis as they’re known in other parts). Parathas are almost impossible to screw up, unless you’re really trying hard to, and taste delicious — because salt + oil = happiness. Here’s a recipe.

With both, you can mix spices into the dough at the beginning to get some amazing flavours (paprika and dry onion bread, anyone?). So consult the spices-left-behind shelf of the kitchen and try to find something interesting to mix into the dough. Both forms of bread will also carry well and so can be taken on extended bus rides the next day.

2. Dal

Photo: iris

Need something to go with your bread? Make dal. Put some oil or butter in a pan, fry up some onions and garlic until they go clear, add a bundle of the orphan spices, two or three cups of washed red lentils, and water. Then leave on a low heat and stir, topping up with water occasionally until the lentils turn into a soft, porridgy-type thing. That’s dal (purists will disagree, but you’re cooking in a hostel kitchen, so we left hair-splitting back at the four-star hotel up the road you aren’t in). Speaking of splitting, split peas will also work, if you can’t find lentils.

Dal is not as portable as, say, bread, but you can store it in an old ice-cream tub or something similar if you have leftovers you want to take with. Or, if you have the time the next day, you can mix in some flour to bind the dal into what are essentially vegetarian hamburger patties that can then be fried / grilled and taken with or eaten for the next night’s dinner.

3. Mushroom pasta

Photo: Matt @ PEK

Purists will have a heart attack, but you can make a half decent mushroom pasta with cream, mushrooms, onions, and a packet of instant soup (onion or mushroom work best). Fry up the onions and mushrooms until they’re soft, then add the cream and the packet soup. The soup powder essentially serves as a cheat by boosting the flavour of the whole dish and making the cream thicker. Stir occasionally on a low heat until it’s all thoroughly mixed and smells delicious, then put onto pasta and pretend you’re a champion.

Sadly, this won’t transport well (or even be terribly delicious in the morning), but it does make for an incredibly low-effort, filling dinner.

4. Soup

Much like dal, soup pretty much involves some frying, followed by a period of leaving it on a low heat until the dish turns mushy. For a veg soup, you simply sauté some garlic and onions until they’re soft, add in some others if you like (mushrooms or pumpkin, perhaps) plus a little bit of water so you can cook the whole lot into a kind of wet mess. Finally, add some cream to give the soup a base, and gently stir on a low temperature until all the flavours mix and it begins to soupify. Keep tasting it and adding salt, pepper, and/or other spices as you go until it’s delicious. There’s a good overview to the basic principles of souping here.

Soup will transport the least well of any of these dinners but makes up for it a little through its ease of cooking.

5. Pie

Photo: star5112

Now you’re showing off. God gave us butter to make us happy and something called shortcrust pastry to help us eat it better. Shortcrust pastry requires only butter and flour (and a tiny bit of salt) to make and allows you to turn essentially anything into a pie.

Yes, that’s right. Anything. Into. A. Pie.

To make shortcrust pastry, you need only chop the butter into smaller bits, put those bits into flour, and work it with your hands until you get a thickish, crumbly pastry. Spoon some tiny amounts of cold water into the dough until it starts to stick together, and you have shortcrust. Here’s a recipe. The world is now your…erm…pie.

You can roll out the shortcrust (use a bottle or a thermos flask if there’s no rolling pin) into a flat sheet, fill it with nearly anything, and fold it over to make a pie out of it. For an easy vegetable pie, mix together some canned veg with a can of cream of potato soup (use a little extra flour for thickening if you need, but it shouldn’t be necessary). Put that filling into your pie crust, bake in the oven until it’s done, and share with people you like. For transportability, you can make little pie-lets, bake them separately, and take them on the road tomorrow.