You have done it. You have found a beautiful hostel. It is safe and clean, has just the right amount of life – not too much that you get no sleep, but not so little that you feel bored. It is just close enough to the big-ticket items of the area that you can walk, but far enough out that you aren’t paying a ‘tourist tariff’. And the beds are comfortable with no little surprises (*cough* bedbugs *cough*).
But then you have to cook your dinner. And no matter where you are, or how wonderful the place is, hostel kitchens are grim. They might be perfectly clean, but there is always something about a hostel kitchen that you just don’t trust. Maybe it is the sheer number of people that have used the equipment. Maybe it is that you know there is always someone who doesn’t clean up after themselves, and let’s face it, pretty much no one will ever clean to your standard. Or maybe it is because you have seen the state of the communal sponges which are almost certainly spreading more germs than they are cleaning. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t really matter: you still need to cook in there. How do you cope with a hostel kitchen?
As someone who has OCD, I find hostel kitchens to be one of the hardest parts of travel. I am lucky, my OCD is mild, and is generally ritual based, but it does affect how I live my life. At home, I know my house is messy (I can deal with mess), but it is clean. And it is cleaned my way, in the same order, to the same, slightly over-the-top, standard. So, I have created my own set of steps to survive the ordeal of hostel kitchen cooking wherever I am in the world.
Step 1: Clean before you start
I love cleaning wipes – think baby wipes, but antibacterial and designed for surfaces. Claim your area and prep it like you would at home, all work surfaces, inside the sink, taps and handles that you need to touch should be thoroughly scrubbed. Alternatively, avoid putting anything on any surface. That is possible for certain types of cooking, but not always, so if you are staying somewhere for an extended period of time, or have the room in your bag, anti-bac wipes are the way forward. If you don’t have any though, all is not lost. I would suggest using a cutting board as your work surface for all prep, but first, make sure you clean it!
Step 2: Clean all equipment thoroughly
Empty and then boil kettle, or boil a pan of water. (I know I shouldn’t encourage wasting water, but you have no idea how long it has been in there, or what it was last used for). Use the boiling water to sterilise all the hostel kitchen equipment you are going to use (I shouldn’t have to, but public disclaimer: boiling water is hot and will scald you, so please don’t just shove your hands in it to do the washing up). Boiling kills germs, and also helps to remove any stubborn/burnt on grime – just make sure you don’t use hostel sponges to clean it! I highly recommend using as little equipment as possible. One pot meals are seriously delicious after all, and don’t require you to use masses of kitchen bits.
Step 3: Use your own antibacterial soap
I carry a bottle of all-in-one antibacterial soap – it is apparently useful for cleaning cooking equipment, washing clothing, and washing your hair and body, so it is an all round useful bottle of soap. But if you can’t find that, then antibacterial dish soap from any store will work! I recommend not using hostel soap, simply because it is usually re-filled and diluted. And chances are, the bottle is going to be handled my many dirty hands, so picking it up will spread germs to you.
Step 4: Don’t even think of touching a hostel sponge, a Silicone Sponge is your friend
I cannot recommend this enough! I have a silicone sponge that I carry in my backpack; it means I do not have to use any hostel sponges, and because it is silicone it doesn’t soak up water so doesn’t harbour germs (or make your backpack soggy). Provided you clean it thoroughly with boiling water and anti-bac soap, it will last indefinitely and keep germs at bay. It does feel a little weird to clean with – it definitely doesn’t feel like cleaning with a normal sponge – but you get used to it pretty quickly.
Step 5: Tea Towels should not be trusted either
Tea towels in hostels come in several varieties, namely: ‘dirty’, ‘stained’, ‘very stained’ and ‘burnt and stained’. They may be washed regularly (I’ve even seen one hostel wash them daily), but people in hostels seem to be unable to use them without covering them in pasta sauce, so they are never going to hit my cleanliness standards. Consequently, I now carry my own micro fibre cleaning cloth. It works brilliantly as a drying towel, and it dries out in minutes. As it is no bigger than a flannel, it takes up next to no space in my pack, so I don’t begrudge carrying it. I just throw it in the wash whenever I wash my clothes so I know it is being kept generally clean. My micro fibre cloth also doubles up as an oven-mitt, because, as you can probably guess, I ain’t gonna be using any hostel oven mitts!
Step 6: Avoid using the fridge. Like, don’t even open the door
The refrigerator: a wonderful invention, sadly, rarely cleaned. Things get spilt, they might have a cursory wipe over, but they aren’t clean. Meat is left on shelves (yes, I’ve seen meat left, without any packaging, on shelves in communal fridges). Veggies go soggy, and then mushy, and then, when they smell bad enough, someone clears them out – but they never clean out the veg juice that collects in the corner of the crisper drawers. But even worse, the door handle probably hasn’t been cleaned since the fridge was first installed. Meaning it is one of the grubbiest places in the entire building. I always try to buy food that I can either store without refrigeration, or if I want meat, I will purchase it just before cooking time so I have no need for using the fridge.
Step 7: The hob is not likely to be clean, neither is the oven, nor the microwave. The hob is your best bet
If you can, clean with your trusty antibacterial wipes first. If the hob is hot, you should at least be able to clean any knobs you need to touch. In reality, the bottom of the pot/pan is the only thing that will touch the ring, so as long as the pan is clean, it is ok. I try to avoid using the oven – no one likes cleaning an oven so it probably hasn’t been cleaned in months, if not years. And the microwave is simply used far too often. And it is used badly. Food spits as it cooks quite often, and no one ever cleans it out after, so there is food (potentially going mouldy) on the roof of the microwave that can drop into your dish at any moment. So, no. No microwave for me!
Step 8: Carry your own plate and cutlery
You probably won’t have enough space to carry an actual plate in your backpack– I only have enough space when I am travelling my camper van. When I’m backpacking, I carry a large plastic mug that has a lid (like a Tupperware box) that I can fill with meals. I don’t trust hostel crockery (I know, shocking right?), so try to avoid it where I can. My giant mug can be used for eating out of – I’ve eaten many pasta, rice and noodle meals out of it, plus things like bangers and mash or even omelette. Plus it can be used for soups, and of course for drinks. Along with that, I carry a spork/knife. It took me a long time to find a practical one – most spork knives have the knife part on the side of the fork, which is highly impractical as every time you take a bite of food you cut your lip. This one has the spork at one end and the knife at the other, it means you hold your cutlery further down the handle, but you don’t cut your mouth! The most important part of this though: because it is my equipment, I know where it has been and who has been eating off it (literally just me).
Step 9: Clean up after yourself
You are a kind and courteous person, so don’t leave anything unwashed. And wash up quickly. Hostel kitchens are often busy and there are relatively few pieces of equipment to go round, so don’t leave your things to soak in the sink whilst you enjoy a leisurely meal. Clean up before you eat – this has the added bonus of making you clean up quickly so your food doesn’t get cold.
I am fully aware that my OCD affects the lengths I go to for a clean kitchen environment.
I know this is too crazy much for a lot of people, but I have OCD and I need to do this or I won’t physically be able to eat. But to be honest, the tips above are all about cleanliness and will only work to help keep you healthy. If you do suffer from OCD, you absolutely can travel. But sometimes it means you need to take a few extra steps.
Do you have any tips for coping in a hostel kitchen? Let me know in the comments below!
*There are links to products on Amazon; none of them are affiliate links. I still need to sort that out.