If you cook, Other People’s Kitchens are always adventures. The rest of the house is pretty predictable, and you’ve seen pictures anyway: Bedrooms have beds, bathrooms have towels, and living rooms have couches.
But no one shows you pictures of the interior of their cabinets. And if you’re devoted to the culinary arts, when you get to someone else’s house and you’re planning on cooking for a week, that first look around may be thrilling, mildly satisfying, or crushingly disappointing. Is there nice cookware? Mustard? Cumin? Even garlic? Good signs. Are there a couple of decent pots with which you can make do? Olive oil? Vinegar? You’ll live. Is there nothing — not even ketchup? It happens. (I swear, I was at a place last month that had been scrubbed so clean I had to go out and buy salt.)
There are two things you know, no matter what. One, you’re going to have to go shopping. But you signed on for that; it’s part of the fun. And two, you’re going to wish you had brought a couple of knives with you. Because the cardinal rule of Other People’s Kitchens (and it applies even to some of my friends’ kitchens) is that they never have sharp knives. People may have late-night-TV bargains or they may have Wüsthofs, but chances are good that they have never sharpened either.
So that’s my first and, really, only ironclad rule: Bring knives. (This assumes checking your bags, of course.) I bring a chef’s knife and a paring knife, and I have never regretted it. A bread knife almost always comes in handy and, if you do a lot of walking, a pocket knife for cheese or whatnot is a good idea — but to me, two knives are minimal.
Beyond that, all traveling cooks must pack according to their personal needs. You can buy salt and olive oil, but those are things you’ll probably find when you arrive in someone else’s house anyway, so on that level, you might as well relax. And, especially in other countries, shopping for weird packaged goods is always a trip.
The real issues are things that you don’t want to go without, nor would you want to buy them for only a week or so. In the hardware world, that might be a fancy corkscrew; for me, it’s a decent skillet. (A lousy pot is not the worst thing in the world, but a lousy skillet can make life truly difficult, and I say that as someone who, for six months, wrote a weekly cooking column while either on the road or using a hot plate and a microwave.)
You have to be realistic, but if I have a feeling that I’m heading to a place where the kitchen is (to be kind) not going to be the highlight, I try to save room for a 10-inch nonstick aluminum skillet in my bag. It doesn’t weigh much, and it’s something that I will use two or three times a day.
There is one other piece of hardware I have started to take along, because I can’t live without it, and even if you find one in your rented kitchen, it’s going to be of a variety that is unusable, and that’s my tongs. I use them all the time, and for some reason, non-cooks don’t understand their value, probably because non-cooks always buy the lousy versions. (You want longish ones, around 10 inches, with metal tips; they need not be expensive.) Same goes with a corkscrew: I bring a $4 waiter’s corkscrew because I have had enough of those wing things and those that are even worse than that.
I will not pack my mandoline, I will not pack my immersion blender, I will not pack my microplane. (Say this over and over.) I might want those things, and I might regret not packing one of them, but there’s a line here that, once crossed, is going to mean you’re not bringing shoes. And you gotta have shoes. (This assumes you’re flying. There are times I’ve driven to other people’s houses and brought all of those things, plus a paella pan. If you’re driving, it’s a whole different situation. You can bring your food processor. You can bring your Sonos, for that matter.)
Some other things I haven’t mentioned that you might consider: a Melitta top and some filters, though a creative person can make coffee with a saucepan and a sock; an instant-read thermometer, if you’re the kind of person who uses one daily, because you’ll never see that in Other People’s Kitchens; a flexible cutting board, which weighs nothing and will come in handy (at my last destination, I got scolded for leaving marks on the butcher block, even though in my opinion that’s what a butcher block is for); and — if you have one — a small kitchen scale, again if you’re the kind of person who cooks that way.
Ingredients are even more personal; they’re similar to toiletries, about which everyone obsesses. I have friends who won’t go anywhere without their own coffee, and I get that, but it isn’t me.
If I bring any ingredients, I’m going to bring an assortment of spices. Rentals might have spices, but they might be like my mother’s — I think she still has this cardboard box of paprika she bought in 1956. (It was exotic in 1956; by 1968, you started to see its twins in antique stores.) I have a friend — he’s more than a little compulsive — who has a small spice kit he always brings on vacations; while he’s packing, he just grabs it and throws it in. You can use pill bottles for this or old spice jars or anything else you like. This is a very good idea. I’ll never be able to execute it because it takes the kind of organization and advance planning of which I’m incapable. Again, almost regardless of your destination, you’re likely to find spices that would pass for “exotic” at home.
But since it does drive me nuts to buy a $5 jar of inferior curry powder to use only one tablespoon, I do try to think ahead the night before leaving. I consider where I’m going, what I’m likely to be cooking, and which spices might be appropriate, and then throw the four or five that seem most important into tiny ziplock bags. I sometimes grab a pinch of saffron from my stash too, since I know I’m not buying that.
Now I’m going to tell you about some things I have brought — not in cars but on planes — that I think might be a little over-the-top but that might spur thoughts of your own, along the lines of, “I gotta have that, and I may not find it or find the kind I like.” Maple syrup is one; the real stuff isn’t easy to find. Soy sauce is another; ditto. I’ve brought pancetta. I’ve brought Parmesan, which, come to think of it, I should do more often. But olive oil, vinegar, mustard . . . these are things that have become widely available, and besides, every place has their own cooking fat and their own method of adding acid: There’s nothing wrong with a lime.
These are really personal decisions. Knives, though, are not. Other People’s Kitchens always need knives, and cooking without good ones is impossible.
MARK BITTMAN’S TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
A chef’s knife and a paring knife
“You can bring a bread knife, and a pocket knife is handy, but for me two knives are minimal.”
A decent skillet
“A 10-inch non-stick aluminum pan is light and inexpensive enough to replace every few years.”
“I use mine all the time.”
A waiter’s corkscrew
“I hate buying new spices for just a pinch. I pack them the night before in tiny ziplock bags.”
“Maybe over-the-top, but the real stuff isn’t easy to find.”
About the author: Mark Bittman is the author of more than 20 books, including the How to Cook Everything series. He’s written about food and cooking for nearly 40 years.