Expedition food

2018-02-21

While on expedition or fieldwork for research, food will probably become a central part of the day, with meal times being one of the few times to properly relax. Having good food and plenty of it is a good way to raise morale when things aren’t going to plan. However, preparing interesting and nutritious food in the field isn’t always easy, with limited cooking utensils and often a lack of fresh ingredients. It’s important therefore to put a lot of thought into what food you will prepare while on expedition, and how you will prepare it. This is a collection of thoughts I have built up over the course of a number of field research expeditions in remote parts of Peru, Brazil, the Republic of Congo, Angola and Canada, with additional things I’ve learned through doing lots of long distance trail walking and camping in the UK.

Getting the right amount of food

It’s easy to under-estimate how much food you need to consume while on fieldwork. In the Peruvian Andes, where we had to trek up to 3 hours per day to get to and from our field sites, I worked out very roughly through estimating my food intake that I was consuming about 5000 calories per day, and even then I lost 5 kg of weight over the course of the 2 month trip. Obviously this varies from person to person, but for me, eating any more food during that trip would have been quite unpleasant, I was already eating as much as I could.

The best way to get calories into your body that will be available throughout a day of hard work I think is through carbohydrate rich food. This means things like rice, pasta, bread, potatoes. Sugar rich food is also great, but apart from crystalline sugar, sugary food will quickly go off without refrigeration, especially in the tropical environments I am used to. Dried carbs on the other hand will last a long time.

Unfortunately, carb rich food is often dull, so requires some creative thinking to prepare meals with a variety of flavours.

It was not uncommon for us to have combinations of pasta, chips AND bread with our evening meals in Peru.

Ingredients

As I’ve said already, I think dried carbohydrates or potatoes are a really good staple that can be used in many different ways to produce one pot meals. Tinned ingredients are good because they last a really long time, and you ca be almost guaranteed they will be fresh when opened, however, tinned foods are heavy.

To get fresh ingredients with the most longevity I would stick to root vegetables for most of the bulk. Soft skinned vegetables like tomatoes are difficult to transport and with bruising will quickly go off, but if it’s possible to bring them then definitely try, fresh vegetables make food much more tasty.

It’s surprising how long eggs will keep, even in hot places, providing they aren’t exposed to direct sunlight for too long. We have had eggs in the field, unrefrigerated for 3 weeks before some of them started going funny, and I’m sure others last longer. Eggs are great for a quick morale booster breakfast in the morning, they are a good source of energy without making you feel bloated like porridge, and are tasty. They can also be prepared in many different ways with minimal cooking equipment. Eggs can also be mixed through rice to make it a bit more interesting and a bit less gloopy.

Sauces are a difficult item to pack. Wet sauces are heavy and sometimes packaged in glass, though sometimes you can find tinned sauces and even more rarely as a dry powder. In the past I have put together a curry sauce using a base of tinned tomatoes, with every ingredient except the tomatoes being in powder form, helping to cut down on weight.

Condiments are a really useful way of making food tasty. The plastic bottles of fast-food style condiments I normally try to take ketchup, mayonnaise, Peri Peri or some other hot sauce, all of which can be found almost anywhere. I normally grab any other condiments I can find in the country I’m in as well, there are some surprising country specific fast food trends EXAMPLE. I normally also bring garlic, salt, pepper and paprika, which can be added to basically anything savoury.

Using local ingredients

When travelling to a far-flung country, it would be a mistake to think you can cook all the things you normally would in the UK. Even basic staples differ across the world, especially in less European-ised countries. Because of this, I think it’s always a good idea to see what local people are cooking with the available ingredients. Most of the time they know the best way to prepare their ingredients and it will likely lead to a smaller food bill as locally common ingredients are often cheaper as they’re not imported. Normally when buying food I try to include as many of the field team as possible, including any local people that are working with us. Having lots of people to bounce ideas off is a good way to make sure any food preferences are listened to, and can make for a more interesting menu.

Luxury items

It’s easy to get into a masochistic mindset during fieldwork, thinking that anything not absolutely essential to your physical survival is unnecessary weight, but in most cases, this sort of mindset isn’t needed. Having some chocolate, sweets, fizzy drinks or even a cafetiere will help massively with your mental recovery after a hard day. Having something to share around other members of your team will give you something to bond over and will really help to connect you to the rest of the field team.

Along the same lines, having a bit of whisky or some other spirit alcohol is a good way to take the edge off and help you to relax at the end of the day. If you aren’t fond of drinking straight spirits, pouring a dribble into a cup of tea is a good alternative. Compartmentalising work and downtime can be difficult in the field where you are constantly surrounded by your colleagues and sometimes there isn’t a clear geographical line between space you work and the space you relax, so having a bit of alcohol can help a lot to draw the line.

Bread

If I could have fresh bread in the field every day I would. Bread is incredibly versatile, a good source of carbohydrates, filling, and generally tasty, though that one might be purely an opinion. Unfortunately though, bread is quite perishable unless it is frozen. Some types of bread last longer, tortilla wraps in sealed plastic for instance can last for many weeks, provided they aren’t kept in full sunlight.

In some places, bread isn’t actually that common as a staple food. In these places, if I can, I make flatbreads using whatever sort of flour I can get hold of. Flour isn’t easy to transport either though, ideally you need a very heavy duty plastic bag that can be tied tightly, to keep the flour dry and to stop it from leaking. I make flatbreads even when I’m at home, normally for breakfast alongside eggs, they’re quick and easy to make with minimal equipment.

Another excellenet use for flour is to make pancakes! Contrary to popular belief they can also be made without eggs if you add a bit of vegetable oil, or even a bit of peanut butter. Pancakes are a good food for a relaxed day off breakfast, because they actually take quite a long time to make with a single pan

Packable lunches

Lunches in the field can be difficult, there is a trade-off between packability and variety. Also sometimes in the field it’s not always easy to eat a proper lunch, if it’s raining a lot, if it’s cold, if you have a long distance to walk etc. Often we make do with sugary Nice style biscuits, which are ubiquitous across the world, normally eaten with some fruit. A ziploc bag with sandwiches is ideal, but the facilities to make sandwiches aren’t always there, especially with a shortage of bread on long expeditions.

In other places, eating lunch just isn’t a common thing, instead replaced by a huge breakfast and supper. In these cases I try to abide by the local customs, but normally take a packet of biscuits anyway just in case.

Cooking equipment

This will obviously vary depending on your fieldwork situation, sometimes you will have a full kitchen, other times, especially while camping, facilities will be much more limited. These are the implements I would like to have in an absolutely minimal fieldwork kitchen, catering for about 4 people, which I’ve found is a common fieldwork team size:

With this equipment you can make one pot meals with chopped fresh ingredients that are combined with tinned or dried ingredients. A large frying pan would be nice in order to make rice pilafs, or eggs, but these things can also be cooked in the boiling pot, it’s just a bit more awkward.

Water and other drinks

In tropical places with a lack of fresh drinking water I would highly recommend against thinking you can boil all of your drinking water. With each person drinking between 1.5 and 3 litres per day, even with a small team boiling this amount of water becomes prohibitively time-consuming and quickly drains your gas supply. Instead I would recommend either taking bottled water or purifying water.

Bottled water is obviously pretty awful for the environment, but these effects can be minimised by not buying imported water, and buying the large 15 l water cooler bottles and investing in a funnel to decant into personal bottles, rather than buying a whole load of 2 l bottles wrapped in additional plastic.

Water purification is also a very good way of getting enough water. For chemical purification I would recommend chlorine based tablets rather than the liquid. Liquid is messy, causing a massive mess of anything metal if the bottle leaks in your bag as it causes rust. It also often requires pre-mixing two bottles of liquid, which is time consuming and awkward. With a tablet you can just drop it in the bottle and by the time you want your first drink of the day it will likely have dissolved. Mechanical purification using a Sawyer life straw or a similar brand is another really good way of purifying water. If using either of these methods, I recommend buying a plastic jerry can or other big liquid container to haul the water from wherever you are collecting it from, back to camp.

Normally I would never drink tea, but on fieldwork I’ve found it’s a good way to get sugar and water into my body. Sometimes I make the tea a bit better by adding some lemon juice, local edible blossoms, or edible leaves to make an infusion. In northern Canada I grew quite fond of making Labrador Tea, which is an infusion of Rhododendron groenlandicum leaves, it grows in alpine areas and has a nice sweet flavour as long as the leaves aren’t left in for too long. There are lots of species around the world which have leaves that are good for making infusions from, members of the Lamiaceae are a good place to start. It’s normally best to observe what locals are doing though.

Rhododendron groenlandicum

Resupplies

In all the places I’ve done field work, there has never been any need to take all of our food out into the field on day one. Normally it is possible to either leave some food or a shopping list to be delivered in the field at some future time, or it is possible to take a day off and go buy some food locally. This is a good way to keep a ready supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, and to cut down on the initial weight being carried into the field. Having deliveries also picks up morale, especially if you hide some luxury items in the shopping bag.

A VERY basic shopping list

Some of these things might not be available in the place you are doing fieldwork or there might be better alternatives, and I am biased towards the tropics with my ingredient choice, but hopefully the majority of things on the list will be available in whatever country. Definitely add other ingredients to this list, this is the bare minimum I think to keep you alive. Substitute ingredients with similar locally accessible ones. For example, in many places in West Africa, substitute potatoes with cassava root.