-- By Jason Adelson
© 2000, RPK&A, Inc.
Because I'm on the student meal plan, I rarely get a chance to cook for myself. A couple weekends ago the implications of this arrangement became clear when I went camping overnight: everything I ate was bland, and I doubt it had many life-sustaining qualities--a mistake not to repeat this summer when I hope to do some longer backpacking trips.
As a result, I've been combing through some ethnic and natural food stores for better ideas, and this is what I've found.
Hiking requires a lot of energy, and carbohydrates are the key. Pasta is good, but I have discovered variants from the East, like rice noodles. Boil them and conserve on water (if that's an issue on your trip) by eating them as a soup instead of draining out the excess water as you ordinarily would for pasta.
A good light carbo snack is udad papads. They are about eight inches in diameter, very thin flour "crackers" from India. They are soft when you buy them but turn crispy and delicious when passed over a flame for only a few seconds. Works great on a camping stove.
Your body will be repairing the muscle you've worked out by hiking, and protein is the building block. Most commonly you might take nuts on the trail for a protein source, but expanding on that, I discovered many kinds of nut butters in health-food stores. Peanut butter is good (and the cheapest), but for variety you can try cashew butter, sunflower butter, almond butter, or sesame butter (also known as tahini). Cashew butter is intense, so although it's expensive, just a little bit added to a sauce or soup can thicken it and richen its flavor.
These nuts have a lot of fat in them too, so I pressed on to find other protein sources.
From Japan there's snow-dried tofu. It's light and doesn't need a refrigerator. Dehydrated miso, also a Japanese staple, is now in my backpack for life. Miso is fermented bean paste and is loaded with live enzymes that help digestion. It has "friendly bacteria" to contribute to a healthy intestinal tract--something not to laugh at if you've had giardiasis from drinking contaminated water. Different kinds of miso commonly available in the U.S. are soybean, barley, and brown rice. It's easy to make--just add hot water.
Moving to the Middle East and Mediterranean: dehydrated falafel and hummus mix. From the alti-plano of South America: quinoa, sometimes called the "super grain" because it contains all of the essential amino acids your body needs to build protein.
Speaking of amino acids, check out Bragg's Liquid Aminos, a black liquid quite similar to soy sauce that you use in the same way. Back to India, another source of protein is a variety of lentils called dhal. Dhal can take a while to cook, but for camping you could try moong dhal, which is a smaller variety that cooks faster. Soak them overnight to save fuel and firewood. Throw in a piece of kombu seaweed for easy digestion.
What about vegetables? The body burns energy from carbohydrates and repairs itself with protein, but none of that will happen efficiently without adequate mineral and vitamin intake. My rule of thumb for getting all the necessary vitamins and minerals is "rainbow variety." Spinach is green, carrots are orange, beets are red, and they all have something we need. Sure, there are many supplements you can buy in a bottle, but why do that if you can get it from the source?
For starters, I have found dehydrated chives, parsley, nettles, red bell peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, beet powder, and giant daikon radishes. Many vegetable bouillons contain carrots, onions, leeks, and celery. Then there is the world of seaweed: wakame, hijiki, dulse, and arame. These are almost always sold dehydrated as well--just soak in water for 15 to 20 minutes to reconstitute.
Blackstrap molasses is a good source of iron and goes well with oatmeal. Nutritional yeast is loaded in the B-vitamins, including vitamin B-12, which is important for vegetarians. Sprinkle it on top of...anything! Dehydrated fruit for trail mix? Don't stop at raisins--there's also dried pears, mangos, currents, apricots, figs, and apples. You can also get vitamin C from rosehip tea and green tea.
Pasta, as mentioned, is in the carbo camp, but if you get spinach pasta you get more vitamins and minerals as well. Or how about artichoke and tomato pasta? Pasta made with soy flour? Whole-wheat pasta? Corn pasta?
Fat sometimes gets a bad rap, but we nevertheless need fat. Its high caloric content can work to your advantage during strenuous hiking. Olive oil is my choice number one. I just use it to saute vegetables. Ghee, or clarified butter, is used in Indian cooking and withstands high cooking temperatures fairly well.
An easy camping recipe I made up is Thai Noodle Soup:
Boil water, add thick rice noodles from Thailand, put in a vegetable bouillon cube, cook until done and take off stove.
Saute whatever veggies you have in olive oil, ginger, and garlic
Put veggies in the pot with the noodles.
Put in some reconstituted seaweed, too.
Add some miso.
Mix in a little nut-butter.
Add nutritional yeast, liquid aminos, and cayenne pepper, if you like it hot.
And finally, blackstrap molasses makes it very interesting.