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Mar 18, 2008 07:19 PM

The Wisdom of the Empty Outbound Carry-On

A few years ago we started bringing a spare carry-on bag with us on international trips to stuff with food from wherever we were. As the most recent trips have been to Italy, that bag comes back stuffed with oils, vinegars, pastas and hard cheeses not found around Pittsburgh. We've learned to pack light enough where both of us have extra room for stuff and still not pay a luggage premium.

From Austrialia, of all things, we brought back Tim-Tams, which are frankly, the most ridiculously addicting cookie on the planet. We brought back six boxes for friends and ate a box and a half on the plane. We also brought back some Indonesian spices and cooking ingredients we'd never seen here. From Mexico we've taken back dried huitlacoche, fresh corn tortillas and some bean varieties that aren't the same here.

Carrying back regional wine, beer (VB!) or booze goes without saying (where legal, of course). So does a great parmigiana-reggiano or other dry aged cheese. Aged vinegars, even "00" flour or something simple that can be had for pennies but costs a fortune here. Surprisingly, there are some great dried pastas that are difficult to get in the US without paying through the nose (strangozzi comes to mind - just had some tonight with a simple toss of olive oil flavored with the Spice Man's (Firenze) 'Mauro' blend and some garlic).

So bringing the empty bag and stuffing it with comestibles has been worth it - sometimes it weighs a good 20lbs or more. And if you don't eat everything right away, a few months later you can have a feast and remember your trip fondly.

But back to the question at hand... What foodstuff do you toss in your bag when heading home that you can't get in the US, or that is of better quality (or value) than what you can get in the US?

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  1. Oils and beers - haven't you come up against the "no liquids" rule?

    2 Replies
    1. re: lagatta

      I had no issues getting a six of VB out of Sydney in 2002, nor problems with oils/vinegars from Bologna or Rome airports. Maybe just lucky, but we weren't the only ones with liquids.

      1. re: Panini Guy

        I think lagatta is referring to the rules that have only gone into effect in the past eighteen months or so.

        There have been significant changes in what you can and cannot take in a carry-on, depending on where you're flying to and from. Liquids need to be in containers sized 3 oz. or less if you're flying in the US and in a see-through quart-size bag. I think the same goes for European Union members and some other countries as well. To be safe, it would be best to put anything liquid in checked luggage where it won't be confiscated.

        More info here:

    2. This answer is in respect to what you can't get in Colombia:

      Fresh purple maize tortillas, Masaharina, and Oaxaca cheese from Mexico; Indian spices and dried game meat from Nairobi; bresiola and Pecorino Romano from Rome; rustic dried game meat, sausages, and sticky rice from Laos; California Japanese rice, nori, fish sauce, aburage, Japanese pickled vegetables, maize husks, toasted sesame oil, peanut butter, and kitchen wares from the US; all sorts of Asian goods from East Timor (because of the stores serving the UN peace keeping forces); dried mushrooms, noodles and teas from Vietnam and China; bulk spices from Iindia and Ethiopia; Chorizo and cassava flour from Brazil; smoked fish (tinapa) from the Phiilippines; Jim Beam from duty free in Panama.

      1. I think I may be a bit more extreme. I bring a COOLER back with me on trips. And not only on international trips, but domestic....Reminds me of when my brother and I were younger...He was probably 5 years old. He stuffed his backpack full of fresh mangos on the way home from Mexico (he wanted to share them w/ our dad who was not on vacation)... Unfortunately, our sister sat on the backpack in the middle of the Mexico City airport, and the backpack ended up full of smashed mangos and had to be rinsed out in the airport bathroom.

        In my experience, I've had more things seized on the way OUT of the US than on the way IN.

        Brats/Sausages (fresh ones from WI, impossible to find great ones in Pgh)
        Seafood from the Gulf of Mexico
        Avocados -they are WAY cheaper where my parents live.
        Fresh masa
        Olive oils/Vinegars
        *cough*Cuban Cigars*cough*
        Tons of stuff from NYC (my sister lives there)...

        2 Replies
        1. re: QSheba

          two years ago, my husband and i bought so much stuff in france, we had to buy another bag. vinegars, oils, cheeses, wines, mustards, herbs, condiments. It weighed 800 pounds. Worth every four letter word we uttered getting it home.

        2. I just have to add - my SO is a pilot in the air force (so, no carry-on restrictions for him) and goes to Australia frequently. The one staple requested for return: As much VB as you can carry. We usually go through a few cases a year. Another one too ... Redback?

          Otherwise, he also works for an airline and our flights, although free, are standby. So when we travel, we can't take anything perishable. (The one time I brought cheese back, we got back two days after schedule).

          It's usually beers, wines or liquors that we like (or bottles with "personality") that we can't readily find in the states, to add to the variety of our bar - whether by taste, variety or sight. (When I know this will be happening, I pack a roll of bubble wrap in a rubbermaid container in a duffle bag so I can protect items on the way home)

          1. We always pack an empty duffel bag, it gets filled with all the sfot goods and clothing for the trip home and the suitcase gets filled with olive or other oils, local hot sauces, random spices, bamboo skewers, specialty salts, kitchen gadgets, sauces, cookbooks, dishware, bar pints, refridgerator magnets, menus, cured meats and whatever else looks fun at the markets.

            I don't usually pack wine home, part of the joy of living in the bay area is the availability of wines from everywhere. The weight/quantity ratio just doesn't make sense. A bottle of oil will make a lot of meals, a bottle of wine not so many.