May 21, 2020

Who has been constantly hungry during lockdown? I have to admit that I’ve been traipsing in and out of the kitchen all day long; opening the fridge door and surveying the ingredients that catch my fancy. I conjure up thoughts of homemade ramen complete with chashu roulade and Moroccan Chicken tagine. But alas, I am always short of one or two components. Sometimes, I can sense condescension whenever I choose pork belly over lean mince, despite it being relegated to the freezer compartment two weeks ago.

Drawing up my google search history, you’ll witness a bunch of amusing inquiries: ‘What can I substitute cream with?’, ‘What types of bread can I bake if I don’t have yeast?’, ‘Best ways to glamorise leftover roast chicken’, ‘Does Chinese black vinegar ever expire?’ Don’t judge; I still used a bottle of Chinkiang vinegar that expired in 2018. 

The point is that none of us is interested in recipes that require a pinch of kasuri methi (fenugreek leaves for those who are giving me quizzical looks) or two tablespoons of dry white wine. The latter may put some of you in a pickle if you are thrifty on alcohol for selfish reasons. More importantly, I am sure you would want to know if there is an IG-worthy dish that you can create involving yesterday’s leftover roast chicken. The answer is yes, but the derivatives may vary.

If you can wrap your head around this, then congratulations, you now understand the beginnings of the canned food industry and even wartime cuisine, where long-lasting, delicious traditions have resulted from sheltering in place. To get through the tough times, people would turn to food as nourishment and a source of motivation to innovate—giving rise to newfangled dishes. Think bánh mì, budae jjigae, gimbap and for something a little closer to home, pulut hitam. Bánh Mì was a hybrid product of the quintessential French breakfast item–the baguette. After the French were defeated, the Vietnamese were allowed to take what was freely available to them and modified it to become the cheap and cheerful little packages we now know them to be—elevated with Maggi sauce, Vietnamese mortadella and laughing cow cheese.

Budae jjigae, on the other hand, a stew made from spam, hot dogs with Korean Gochujang and instant noodles originated during the war, when food was scarce and canned provisions were the only forms of sustenance. You can get a bonus piece of processed cheese (as the icing on the cake) at bustling Korean joints too. Their menus read “Top up $3 for cheese” in addition to the stiff price of $30 to $45 for a bubbling cauldron of processed food.

From humble beginnings to global recognition, dishes like the Portuguese migas (water-soaked bread cooked in fat or crumbs) are a good example of how cooks get creative in times of hardship. Perhaps your air fryer experiments might lead to a YouTube video with more than 300,000 views, or your accidental substitution of garlic chives for leeks might materialise into a first-rate plat du jour. In these unsettling times, we have to try to feed ourselves using every last scrap of food.

As we are sinking into a coronavirus-driven recession, we have to be inventive in creating healthy meals with minimal and inexpensive ingredients. Need good food? Tempted to order takeaway but it is going to blow your budget? Take a deep breath and look at what’s in your pantry first. Perhaps there’s something magical waiting to happen when you combine a can of baked beans, preserved mustard greens and corned beef. And it’s not on Google yet.

Here are some of my tips. Not sure what to do with extra tomato sauce? Eggs in Purgatory for breakfast or Israeli shakshuka. Improvise. Done with your roast chicken dinner? Crank your oven up to 230 degrees and chuck the bones and carcass into the stove. Fifteen minutes later, they should go into a stockpot with water and a few aromatics. Boil and then reduce to a simmer for at least three hours or overnight—your hearty broth will make a fuss-free dinner with noodles and a couple of meatballs.