***NOTE: Revised March 11, 2013: My contact at Backpackers Pantry clarified that the company has replaced its soy sauce with a gluten free version but didn’t want to waste the packaging with the already labeled ingredients. So, the Thai spicy peanut sauce and pad see you are now produced gluten free. Feel free to contact the company for a spec sheet of any and all products if you are concerned.***
Early in January I was perusing the selection of dehydrated meals at my local REI, and I noticed an entire panel devoted to Backpacker’s Pantry. I counted a veritable array of foods spanning a global palate and liked what I saw. I did some further sleuthing online and eventually reached out to the company to see if it might be interested in supporting my trek with a donation.
Backpacker’s Pantry is a family-owned operation out of Boulder, Colorado that sources gourmet backpacking foods. What I love about this company is that its sister company, Colorado Spice, supplies all-natural and organic spice blends throughout the U.S., and many of those spices end up in Backpacker’s Pantry’s dehydrated meals.
Maybe the best thing about Backpacker’s Pantry’s dehydrated meals, though, is the selection available for those with special diets such as vegan, vegetarian, or (ahem, ahem) gluten free, in particular of the ethnic variety (double whammy!).
FYI, visit Backpacker Pantry’s website to see the available dehydrated meals. The company breaks out the gluten free meals into easily discernible options.
I fell in love with ethnic food years ago, and they’re a regular part of my diet. I have my favorite Indian restaurant, Thai, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Persian, Lebanese, and on and on (Am I boring you yet? Or am I making you salivate?). So the thought of leaving all of those flavors and spices behind has left me forlorn. In fact, I was recently plotting to see if my friend April would be willing to bring me some of my favorite ethnic foods to the trail when I’m traveling through Virginia.
Luckily, it looks like I won’t have to leave some of my favorite flavors behind. Backpacker’s Pantry generously offered to send me a selection of its gluten free meals to sample, and the package arrived just the other day. Yay! In the box, I found:
- chana masala
- pad thai
- Louisiana red beans and rice
- Katmandu curry
- pad see you with chicken
(***has wheat in soy sauce. NOT gluten free.)</li>
- Cuban black bean coconut
- apple d’lite
- spicy Thai peanut sauce (
***has wheat in soy sauce. NOT gluten free.)</li>
- freeze-dried strawberries
Instead of discussing all of the merits of the yet-to-be-sampled donations, I’d like to share with you the significance of some of the meals that Backpacker donated. If I may, please humor me with a trip down memory lane.
Chana Masala – When I first moved to the DC area, I lived with a friend from college. That first year, coming off of a college student’s hourly wages and then a year of earning a modest stipend with AmeriCorps, I ate out infrequently. I hadn’t yet figured out that a salary meant money in the bank and an opportunity to enjoy myself more often with meals out. One thing my friend and I discovered that year was a great – and my first ever – Indian restaurant. And coming off of nine years as a vegetarian, chana masala (a chickpea dish) became an inexpensive and reliable favorite.
Pad Thai – At the age of 22, I spent a semester studying abroad in Singapore. During that time, I took two week-long vacations to Thailand. A stubborn vegetarian and concerned by the quality of street food, I defaulted to eating pad thai at least once a day. For a long time thereafter, pad thai became a comfort food, although I have to admit I like Thai food better in the U.S. than in Thailand.
Louisiana Red Beans and Rice – I spent the second year I served in AmeriCorps in the gulf coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. For one stretch, my team spent two months working with Habitat for Humanity in Slidell, Louisiana, which is a city that flooded on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain. For a good portion of that time, I was requisitioned to the kitchen, preparing lunches for hundreds of volunteers. Red beans and rice is a traditional meal cooked on Mondays in Louisiana because it was when laundry was done, and the meal could be left to cook all day.
With tradition in mind, every Sunday night, I would drive over to the kitchen to drown kidney beans in water, and Monday morning we’d return to cook the bloated beans with tomatoes, onions, Andouille sausage, and a handful of spices, guided by a large old woman with no teeth and thick, strong hands. She put me to shame.
Katmandu Curry – I’ve never been to Nepal, but I did spend a month traveling with a few friends through India in 2008/9. I loved trying new dishes, but after a while, I inevitably settled on the thali, which is a standard platter served at many street-side open-air restaurants. The food included varies, but – if my memory serves – there was always a side of lentils, likely cooked in ghee (clarified butter) and spices (right, Lisa?). Especially in some of the cooler climes around New Delhi, this hearty meal warmed me to the core.
Pad See You with Chicken – Remember that college friend I mentioned up above? (Hi, Chris!) Well, she up and moved to NYC after a year. And, never fear, it worked out for the best. April and I met through Craigslist and have been roommates ever since (and will be for the next few days, at least), and Chris became a midwife and married the love of her life. Oh, and of course I’ve made many visits to NYC in the interim. And do you know what Chris’s favorite Thai dish is? Yep, you guessed it: pad see you. I couldn’t be her friend for this long without gaining an appreciation for those wide flat rice noodles and that salty soy sauce flavor.
>***Note: VERY IMPORTANT, Backpacker’s Pantry’s Pad See You is not gluten free because it has soy sauce made with wheat in it. The vast majority of the time, I avoid gluten, but I cheat every once in a while (5% or less) with ingredients such as soy sauce. If you cannot tolerate ANY gluten EVER, do NOT purchase this pad see you meal OR THE SPICY THAI PEANUT SAUCE.***</p>
Cuban Black Bean Coconut – Back in 2008, I found this amazing deal for a flight and long weekend hotel stay to Puerto Rico and convinced my friend to join me. We mainly went on the cheap, taking the public bus to the historic areas, doing a half day trip to the rainforest, opting for a rum factory tour, and hanging out (read: getting sunburnt) by the pool. But one night we decided to splurge and went to this Cuban restaurant (Do you remember that, Nicki?). I was really nervous because I expected spicy latin food. Instead, I was surprised to find flavorful but mild island food. Cuba took the standard combination of black beans and rice and made it all its own. The dish was delicious and memorable.
As you can tell, food is near and dear to me. I remember experiences by the food involved. I associate different meals with friends and family, places and feelings. All of these ethnic meals that Backpacker’s Pantry provided me have an unfair advantage in that they accompany already existing warm memories.
But I’m ready to take it one step further. I’m ready to sit around a shelter after a long day of hiking, the only thing on my mind being how much I’m anticipating that next bite of food, that next spoonful of curry or noodles or rice. And I’m so grateful that Backpacker’s Pantry has given me the opportunity to fill that void with one of its exciting ethnic dishes, an opportunity to overlay my memories of each meal with a vision of the trail.