I Sold All My Belongings to Travel the World. Here’s What I Kept.

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Charity Burggraaf)

At age 42, I whittled my life to nine boxes to cram in a friend’s basement. The worst part was selling the kitchen gear I’d amassed over 25 years of being a food nerd. From my tagine to a Thai mortar and pestle to unusual utensils, it was a gut-wrenching lesson in how much cooking tools are part of how I feed my soul. But in my new nomadic life, I didn’t have space for non-essential ephemera, so into someone else’s home it all went — save for a few select items.

Starting my travels I carried a meat thermometer and Aeropress coffeemaker in my bag, thinking I’d be covered. But I soon discovered that different beds, different apartments, and different cities become routine after awhile, but badly stocked kitchens are impossible to reconcile. It’s one thing to weekend away with a few cooking gadgets, or deal with a lack thereof, but it’s another when you’re on the road 24/7 with no end date.

Part of my soul dies every time I search an Airbnb kitchen for utensils I think are must-haves. No spatula? What cruelty is this? Don’t get me started on toasters.

(Image credit: Steffani Cameron)

10 Essential Tools for Your Travel Kitchen Kit

After 35 kitchens in 15 countries in 20 months, my travel cooking kit has grown considerably, but all of my tools fit in a single packing cube that weighs around two pounds and measures just 12″x3″x4″ — really! — plus, there’s still room for a few more additions.

The longer I travel, the more value I realize this kit brings me. I love dining in exotic locations, but the only way I keep a sense of “home” is through cooking. Also, in places like Albania and the Azores, the quality of produce available is so amazing that the idea of not cooking with it seems incredibly foolish.

There are gear choices you’ll regret making after launching long-term travels, but a well-stocked kitchen kit will not be among them. It is the last thing I pack before I leave any city, and the first thing I unpack. Here’s what I carry.

Tip: In general I like mountaineering cooking equipment because it’s designed for people hauling stuff up mountains, so manufacturers have weight, durability, and portability in mind. If not in a mountaineering shop, then I buy gear online, where product specifications list item weight and size. When airline check-in weight limits loom monthly, and I haul that bag over cobblestones and curbs, every gram counts.

1. Aeropress Coffee Press

I love Europe’s sidewalk-café coffee culture, but I still love coffee “at home” too. Made of indestructibly strong plastic, the Aeropress weighs more than a pour-over coffee cone, but has survived 40+ flights and 15 countries. I use a metal filter and ditch the paper filters and its other accessories. A hand-grinder’s novelty wore off fast, and now I buy locally roasted beans or packaged Illy or Lavazza grounds.

When using different stoves every few weeks, never knowing if they’re calibrated right, a thermometer is invaluable. From bread-baking to meat roasting and anything else temperature-dependent, a digital meat thermometer means never wondering if it’s done. Bonus: It’s lightweight and easy to use.

My greatest frustration in my first six months of travels was never, ever having sharp knives. The 8-inch chef’s knife I bought in a mountaineering shop has saved me time and again. With a plastic sheath for the blade, I don’t need a knife roll.

Tip: A chef friend taught me a great trick for sharpening. To hone any knife, turn a ceramic mug upside-down and drag across the unglazed bottom edges as a “sharpening stone.” It’s not pro-level honing, but helps in a pinch.

4. Veggie Peeler

Perhaps inessential to some, but I love mine and it’s mind-boggling how few kitchens have good ones. In addition to peeling veggies, I also use it to shave cheese curls into salads and omelets.

5. Silicone Tongs

Because bacon, obviously. But also, so versatile! In rentals with nonstick frying pans but no spoons or spatulas, silicone tongs have been my saving grace. I’ve had kitchens with no tea towels or pot-holders, and needed to pull hot bread and pans out of the oven — tongs to grab with, a knife to stabilize the bottom. A nomad adapts! Tongs are essential for frying anything or cooking meat.

6. Microplane

Received as a gift, a pro-level Microplane is a tool I never would’ve bought but now use on a weekly basis for grating cheese for pasta, zesting lemons for dressings and marinades, and grating ginger and garlic for Asian recipes. When a Oaxacan Zapotec woman in Central Mexico gave me a brick of chocolate she roasted and milled herself, I used my microplane to grate it for some of the best hot chocolate of my life.

7. Corkscrew

Countless places have bad corkscrews leading to broken corks or chipped bottles. Just trust me and bring your own. A good waiter’s corkscrew, and knowing how to use it, makes life better as a wine-lover.

8. Can Opener

I’ve lived without one of these, since I avoid canned foods and simply buy fresh, but if you’re a lover of canned foods of any kind, you’ll need an opener, because 90 percent of my lodgings tend to lack them.

9. Leatherman Multitool

From broken pot lids to a twisted veggie peeler blade and loose handles on pots, my multitool is where I turn to when things get weird in the kitchen  —  or elsewhere in travels. I use a Leatherman multitool with pliers, saw, sharp knife, screwdrivers, scissors, and more. No, it’s not my responsibility to fix that frying pan with the wobbly loose handle, but if I want to enjoy cooking with it for three weeks, that’s exactly what I do.

10. Pastry Brush

My latest addition to my bag is a silicone pastry brush. It’s great for saucing meats, but I originally bought it to brush toast with salted olive oil, an addiction I’ve gained in the olive-rich southern Balkans. That’s a glorious thing about this long-term travel lifestyle: I never know what my next food love will be. Salted olive oil on toast — who knew?

4 More Tools I’m Considering for My Travel Kitchen Kit

  • Foldable spatula: I’ve had a run of places lately without spatulas, and one of my favorite comfort foods is an over-easy egg, so the struggle is real. And then there’s this weird trend of nonstick pans where the Airbnb owner doesn’t include plastic or rubber utensils. My integrity as a cook won’t allow me to be the one who’s scratching these things!
  • Silpat sheet: Who’s the food snob now, right? I know, I know. In my old life, I’d use parchment paper, but buying parchment (or even finding it) is ridiculous. I can’t use Silpat for cooking en papillote, but I can certainly enjoy the nonstick bliss of baking with it.
  • Silicone gloves, clamshell-style: Pinch-mitt silicone oven-safe gloves will be immensely useful, since many places don’t include oven mitts or even tea towels. Under three ounces for a pair, it’s worth adding to my kit and won’t weigh me down.
  • Beeswax food wrap: Food storage is a hassle in Airbnbs because there are seldom storage containers or plastic wrap. Shopping bags are often not food-safe. One or two beeswax food wraps will allow me to avoid buying plastic while being environmentally responsible.

Do you have a travel kitchen kit? What’s in your box?