NEW YORK (MainStreet)—The last time I went backpacking my fiancée and I wanted to see as much of the world as we could manage on a fairly modest budget. So we set some strict rules for ourselves. We wouldn't spend any more than $20 for a room, for entertainment no more than $10 per day and each meal would cost only $5 per person.
As two people who love to eat, at first this seemed pretty daunting. How much would we miss out on because we'd decided to pinch our pennies? How often would we cheat, because something just looked too amazing? Were we simply being unrealistic?
Happily, as it turned out, the world is absolutely filled with places where you can get incredible, quality meals on a tight budget. It's simply a matter of finding them. So, for those travelers who want to have their cake and not have to pay for it too, I give you my recommendations: five outstanding destinations on under than five dollars per meal.
Not usually a budget destination, France, and specifically Paris, actually has some of the most remarkable street food in the world. Although the euro makes life a little difficult for Americans, $5 will buy you €3.85, and that's plenty.
To start off with the city is dotted with small creperies, windows onto the street where wizards pour their batter on hot plates and spread it paper thin. Costing anywhere from €2 to €4 euros, crepes are an outstanding and cheap way to eat your way around the City of Lights. Try the crepe complet for lunch, served with ham, swiss and a fried egg, or the famous crepe suzette, served with powdered sugar and a squeeze of lemon.
For real variety, find your way to the Rue Mouffetard. This university neighborhood is also one of Paris's liveliest and an incredible place for travelers on a budget looking to eat cheap. Grab a slice of quiche on the go, only €3 from the small pie counters or the roasted chicken and potatoes. Cooked on slow spits over a bed of fingerling potatoes, so that they cook in the chicken's drippings, this is a signature Parisian street dish. Get it in a small basket, and you can happily see the sights and sounds of a busy, Parisian neighborhood while you enjoy your lunch, or take a seat in the small park at the end of the street to enjoy a more leisurely meal.
Finally, don't miss the Saturday market to collect some bread, cheese and produce fully worth France's reputation and stock up on cheap, delicious flavors.
Cambodia is largely missing from the world food scene, and that's our loss. Tucked between Thailand and Vietnam, this small country has been generally overshadowed by its more famous neighbors. Nevertheless Cambodia has quietly managed to create its own fiercely distinct style of cooking defined largely by lemon grass, sour and bitter herbs and a balance of sweet with spicy flavors.
The amok and local curry are an absolute must, taking advantage of root vegetables in a way that other regional curries skip altogether. Thailand, if you're reading this, sweet potatoes are what your curry has been missing for the last thousand years. Still while those are the most famous Cambodian dishes, according to Dary Mien of the Illinois Cambodian Association and Memorial Museum, they're far from the most unique or the best.
"It's when you go a step further, that's where it gets to be oh-my-goodness completely different from its neighbors," Mien said. "Cambodia [uses] fermented fish. Some people tend to taste it for the first and second time and they develop a liking for it, and others say, 'Oh I'll never go back to that again.' The fermented fish is really strong and used as the base in a lot of soups [and] sauces for delicacies as well as creating barbecue meat."
In particular, travelers should make sure to try the local noodle soup, noum banh chock. Often called Cambodia's national dish, this curried noodle soup is popular for both breakfast and lunch, and is a surprisingly effective way to beat the heat of the afternoon.
The best part for travelers watching their wallets, if not their waistlines? With the Cambodian riel trading at 4,000 to the dollar, it's difficult to find a dish that won't come in under your $5.00 budget.
Tear yourself away from the soaring spires of Istanbul and the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia for just a moment, and it's pretty easy to see why Turkey is a consistent winner for cheap countries to eat.
When I asked about her favorite choices for great, inexpensive food on the road Akila McConnell, author of The Road Forks grabbed on to Turkey right away, writing that "the street food in Turkey is simply mouthwatering: kebabs, pides, baklava, borek and more, usually served up for under $5.00."
While kebabs ordinarily steal all the limelight, it's the lesser known pide that deserves your attention on that next trip out east. Served up similar to a pizza, a pide is a long piece of flatbread cooked with vegetables, spices and minced meats on top. At a small restaurant these can run anywhere from six to 12 lira, the equivalent of $3 to$6, depending on your toppings.
If you want to try something a little bit different, visit the Galata Bridge at sundown. There you'll find a crowded marketplace and a line of boats selling grilled fish sandwiches for five lira, the day's catch served with little more than salt and a bottle of lemon juice on the table. Be careful of bones, but, whatever you do, don't miss out. One of the best meals in the city is being served on that dock.
It's hard to argue with an expert, and in this case I won't even try. Turkey is a hands down winner.
For any budget traveler looking for a good meal, Malaysia has three things going for it:
1. A history of immigration that mixes Chinese, Indian, Thai and English cultures alongside the local Malays
2. A nationwide food culture that fills city streets with vendors every night
3. A currency that trades more than 3-1 in favor of the dollar
Malaysian street food is world renowned, to the point where the island of Penang was once ranked by CNN as the top destination for street food in all of Asia. It's easy to see why. With 15 ringgit to spend in Penang's large food gardens, you can easily put together an incredible meal made of influences from all across east and south Asia.
While there, be sure not to miss out on the clay pot rice. A dish imported from China and thoroughly localized, this is more or less exactly what it sounds like. A clay pot filled with rice, spices, egg and meat is roasted in an oven until the entirety of it is red hot. By the time it comes out, much of the rice has burnt to the sides (creating a fried, crispy shell that this writer particularly loves). It's served piping hot and spicy and almost always in considerably larger portions than I can handle.
If you're looking for something lighter, give the wonton mee a try for 10 ringgit or less. "Mee" is the local word for noodles, and in this case, it means a noodle dish served with small wonton dumplings and sliced pork. Be sure to get it with the broth, order it as a soup or "wet," to get the full effect.
Finally, no trip to Penang would be complete without a trip to Little India for the samosas. Hang out a bit to get them just out of the oil, and they make a fantastic lunch for no more than $1.
On any list for inexpensive eating around the world Thailand holds a place of honor. Thai food is deservedly world famous for its depth, diversity and quality, and at 30 baht to the dollar, once you're paying local prices it becomes incredibly affordable.
As far as amazing food on a budget goes, Thailand is the granddaddy of them all. Don't miss out.
Honorary Mention: the U.S.--Philadelphia
Beyond the far stretches of culinary delights, don't forget to look closer to home. Philadelphia has quickly become world famous for its food scene, from Steven Starr's chain of themed eateries to Iron Chef Morimoto's outstanding sushi restaurant. Even the local pubs get into the action. When I practiced law in Philadelphia, my corner bar had cheap beer on tap, football on the TV and a prime rib hamburger with aioli for the French fries that would knock your socks off.
Well, the local food trucks haven't been left out either. Thanks to its key location of "not New York," Philadelphia has managed to stay relatively inexpensive, so its growing fleet of gourmet trucks can keep their prices similarly low. That doesn't mean that everything will be in your $5 price range, but it does open up a lot of incredible options.
The best work is being done out in the University City, the neighborhood surrounding the University of Pennsylvania. Boasting locations such as Tyson Bees, Ali Baba's and Sugar Philly, this is an outstanding area to find both quality and diversity on a budget. If you're further downtown, on Center City's Market Street make sure to try Christos's Falafel. It's one of the single best food trucks I have ever been to in my life, full stop.
Finally, not to be missed is the Koja truck's bulgogi cheesesteak. A stretch from our promised budget (the one time, I promise), this sandwich delivers a Korean barbecue spin on Philly's classic cheesesteak. Listed at $9.00, it still remains something of a bargain and is quite simply a remarkable sandwich. I won't start into the "best cheesesteak in Philly" argument here, because it just is. Dig deep or share with a friend. I promise, this one's worth it.
Eric Reed is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website