Thomas Zacharias shares tips on what ingredients to buy during this time of isolation.
Let’s face it. Chances are that you’re barely stepping out of your homes right now. Your grocery runs are limited to once a week, if that. Figuring out how and where your next meal is coming from features high up on your radar. So, regardless of how challenging or easy preparing food is at the moment, keeping your kitchen pantry and refrigerator well stocked is a good idea and will alleviate the burden of uncertainty at least in the kitchen.
When I decide what to keep in my “quarantine pantry”, I can’t help but put on a chef’s thinking hat – dividing ingredients into categories, so that it’s a reasonably exhaustive list, and consciously making smart choices about my purchases. Given that the predicament many of you are in couldn’t be too different, I figured a catalogue like this might be helpful for some of you, at least as a starting point for how to put together your own pantry wish list.
While compiling this, I have considered not just the versatility of individual ingredients, but also how a combination of these could expand your world of culinary possibilities during this quarantine. The reason I have broken the ingredients down into different groups is also to help make your own buying decisions easier.
Here’s a confession. I do secretly wish I could sneak into our kitchen at The Bombay Canteen and smuggle out some of the harder-to-source ingredients like kodampuli and Goa sausage, or even get my hands on the bounty of summer veggies like jackfruit seeds and turmeric leaves, which would’ve been in abundance in the markets at this time. However, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to be content and grateful for what I have. So I’ve skipped out on the really hard-to-source stuff.
This list might feel very ambitious right now, but it’s meant to be an optimistic one, and we could all use a bit of hope in times like this, right? It is unlikely that you’ll be able to source everything that’s suggested, given that most local shops don’t stock all of them. And that’s okay. Honestly, I don’t have every single one of these ingredients in my pantry either. It’s meant to be a master list, a framework of reference for when you do get lucky and chance upon these items. And I certainly hope you do.
Thinking Through the Pantry
Let’s start with the essentials. Apart from rice and wheat flour, which I assume you already have, diversifying your stock of beans and pulses is a clever idea. A combination of rajma (kidney beans), kabuli chana (chickpeas) and a split lentil, like moong dal, should do the trick, but feel free to go crazy with this one because they typically come cheap. For your breakfast fix, you could conjure up a dozen options with just rava (semolina), but things like poha help break the monotony every now and then. Eggs are probably my favorite thing on this list, not just because of its countless applications but also because I’m a sucker for breakfasty food at all times of the day. Once you supplement these staples with some super versatile ingredients like onion, potato, tomato, ginger, garlic and green chilli, you could cook up a whole lot of simple but wholesome dishes. Coconut milk and yogurt may seem like non-essentials currently, but given their adaptability and their contribution to the world of curries, stews, marinades and sauces, I’ve included them in this category.
While many of you will have a basic vegetable oil at home, investing in a few different cooking mediums helps change things up with each meal. Ghee is fantastic not just to make curries and biryanis but also to cook eggs with and sauté greens. Best of all, unlike butter, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, and we all know how precious refrigerator space is at a time like this. Apart from this, flavourful cooking oils like mustard oil and coconut oil act as great substitutes for vegetable oil when you want to alter the flavour direction of the dish.
Next, it’s time to think of flavour boosters and balancers. If your essentials are going to form the bulk of your food, then this category is going to make sure that your dishes continue to be unique, exciting and delicious. Herbs and spices are going to be your best friends until this tides over. Cilantro and curry leaves are must-haves for me but if you can get your hands on aromatics like spring onion, basil and rosemary, you’re golden. If you’re going to be cooking a lot of Indian food, then whole spices like black mustard and cumin as well as spice powders like turmeric, red chilli, coriander, cumin, hing and black pepper are a must. I also keep what I call ancillary spices – bay leaves, kasturi methi, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom – if I’m going to be making pulaos or biryanis. Apart from these, condiments can do wonders to spruce up a stir-fry, salad or even some grilled vegetables but since they don’t usually come cheap, you could avoid them. I’m a sucker for a good soy sauce, a small bottle of fish sauce, a nice lime pickle and of course, Sriracha. Thank god for Sriracha!
Most dishes you cook will beg for some form of sourness to either elevate it, so having a stash of limes, some dried tamarind or kokum, and a bottle of vinegar – apple cider, red wine or even just the synthetic kind – will come in quite handy. These are particularly crucial if you want to balance out your curries and bakes with lighter salads during the week. With acidity comes a need for sweeteners. If stocking up on honey, jaggery or brown sugar seems like a luxury, you could use plain white sugar, which should also do the trick in most cases.
When it comes to vegetables, go with your gut instinct or favourites, unless you’re feeling extra experimental. The more versatile the vegetable – like, say, baingan (eggplant), cauliflower or capsicum (green bell pepper) – the better. I’ve been eating cabbage, karela (bitter gourd), bhindi (okra), cucumber and green beans just because my local sabziwala has them in abundance and in surprisingly pristine quality. If you’re low on refrigerator space, invest in more sturdy gourds, sweet potatoes and pumpkins, which can be kept out for weeks without spoilage. Make sure you try to include leafy greens like spinach, or even better, things like methi (fenugreek leaves), lal math (red amaranth) and poi saag (Malabar spinach), which are in their prime in the months of March and April. Mushrooms are precious at a time like this, when our protein supply is limited and yet we crave those meaty flavours.
Speaking of meaty, if you’re not vegetarian, chances are that you’re craving meat and seafood now more than ever. Supply chains and sources for these are a little more challenged right now, so my advice is to take what you can get. The easiest to find should be chicken. I typically buy only chicken legs because they’re more flavourful and end up being juicier in practically every cooking application of poultry. Do not waste your time on the breast. If you can find shrimp or mutton, grab them. If you’re looking to be prudent, now is a great time to be cooking less expensive fish like sardines and anchovies, offals like chicken gizzards and liver, and less popular meat cuts like goat trotters or nalli.
If you’re looking to bake with all the free time you now have, your pantry should have baking powder, baking soda, yeast and butter at the very least. Cooking chocolate and heavy cream will be a nice addition too.
In case you’re one of the lucky few that has some certainty of a steady income over the next several months or are willing to splurge, there are a few things you can get to prepare that one-off, fancy-schmancy meal. If you like Italian or European food, try finding some pasta (any pasta), extra virgin olive oil, good cheese and maybe even salumi and olives. I get cravings for Thai curry every now and then, so I try to get my hands on a decent curry paste or even Thai aromatics like lemon grass, limes leaves and galangal, so I can make my own. For that salad dinner I alluded to earlier, hunt for whatever lettuce is available, like iceberg or romaine. English vegetables like snow peas, baby corn, bok choy, broccoli and fennel are particularly apt to make roasted veggies and pasta or to top that pizza you’ve been aspiring to make. Dry fruits like prunes or dates and nuts like peanuts and almonds add a really lovely contrast to salads, stir fries and even in dessert, not to mention doubling up as great snacks through the day.
Here’s the entire list in decreasing order of usefulness. Happy cooking!
Full Quarantine Pantry List
Flour or atta
Pulses & legumes – rajma, channa, moong dal
Breakfast – rava, poha
Onion, potato, tomato, garlic, ginger, green chilli
Flavor boosters & balancers
Cilantro, curry leaves, basil, spring onion, rosemary
Powdered – turmeric, red chilli, coriander, cumin, hing, black pepper
Whole – black mustard, cumin
Ancillary – bay leaves, kasturi methi, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom
Sauces & condiments
Soy sauce, fish sauce, pickle, sriracha or some red chilli sauce
Limes, dried tamarind or kokum, vinegar (apple cider/red wine/synthetic)
Honey, jaggery, brown sugar
Eggplant, cauliflower, capsicum, cabbage, karela, bhindi, cucumber, green beans, etc.
Gourds, sweet potatoes, pumpkins
Spinach, methi, lal math, poi saag
Chicken legs (on or off the bone), shrimp, mutton
Chicken gizzards, chicken liver, nalli
Pasta or noodles
Extra virgin olive oil
Cheese, salumi & olives
Thai curry paste or Thai aromatics (lemon grass, galangal, lime leaves)
Salad lettuce – iceberg, romaine
English vegetables – snow peas, baby corn, bok choy, broccoli, fennel
Dry fruits – prunes, dates, peanuts, almonds
The writer is the Chef-Partner at The Bombay Canteen. This article first appeared on his website.