It is cold. It is dark. It is winter. And post-Christmas, we all feel skint. How do you lift spirits and put some sizzle in your cooking without spending much? We asked some of Britain’s best chefs: if you had a fiver or less to spend – what would you buy??
Kikkoman dark soy sauce
Stephen Harris, chef-owner, the Sportsman, Seasalter, Kent
The Dutch East India company listed soy sauce in 1737. It has a long history in Europe, but I don’t think British people understand how powerful it is. It’s liquid umami for a couple of quid and, used judiciously, it’s amazing in bolognese, chilli, stews and marinades. If you’re frying mushrooms and want a real flavour boost, bung a tablespoon in and reduce it down.
Yotam Ottolenghi, Ottolenghi restaurants, London
Hat tip on this to Tara Wigley, who I write with. Buy as many green and red chillies as you can, finely slice and salt them (one tablespoon per 250g). Refrigerate in a sealed container for three days, then blitz with cider vinegar (3 tbsp) and lemon juice (1 tbsp). In a new container, seal the paste with olive oil and keep in the fridge. Spoon over and into anything savoury to ramp up its flavour.
Too Good To Go food bag
Sally White, chef-owner, Salcooks, Birmingham
The Too Good to Go app helps fight food waste. Customers buy a magic bag from a listed cafe or restaurant – maybe a chain like Yo! Sushi or an indie like us – filled with food that would have been binned. You can’t be too fussy. You might get meat, veg or a bag of cakes, and sometimes the bags are cancelled and refunded if places get busy. But you do get excellent deals. Our bags cost £3 for £9- or £10-worth of food. If you need inspiration for the contents, you can pick up some brilliant cookbooks second-hand for under a fiver. For example, Merry White’s Cooking for Crowds, Claudia Roden’s A New Book of Middle Eastern Food or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s reliable River Cottage Veg Every Day.
Lee Johnson, chef and co-owner, Bong Bong’s Manila Kanteen, London
I was born in Manila, and Filipino cooking is a real combination of sweet and sour, often in the form of vinegar-based dipping sauces. At Bong Bong we use 7 Up (some Filipinos think it should be Sprite) in a sweet 24-hour pork-rib marinade. I presume this came from Americans in the Philippines during the second world war, who used Coke in BBQ marinades and that kind of thing. Ours is half-and-half 7 Up and soy sauce, plus garlic, ginger, chilli, sugar and fresh lemongrass, which creates good caramelisation and sweet, citrusy, fragrant ribs.
Shaun Hurrell, Barrio Comida, Durham
I used expensive Japanese knives for years before an Aussie chef put me on to the Thai-brand Kiwi knives. They’re my go-to knives for daily prep – ultra-sharp, super-lightweight and with a very thin blade you can quickly put an edge on. You can pick them up for about £5.
Tom Kerridge, Hand & Flowers, Marlow
Buy 200g, divide into 10 cubes and freeze them individually. As needed, stir one into a casserole, chilli, puy lentils or even a curry to give it a massive enhancement. At 40p a pop, it’s an incredibly cost-effective way to drive flavour into dishes.
Miguel Barclay, chef and author of One Pound Meals
A squeeze of lemon will transform almost any food you can think of; you need that balance of acidic tartness, even in a bolognese. A lemon is what, 30p? That’s the kind of cooking that real chefs do. You’ll notice the difference.
Maldon smoked sea salt
Grace Regan, chef-owner, SpiceBox, London
I’m salt-obsessed, and this salt takes things to the next level. I add it to salads, roasted veg and cooked grains. Sprinkled over cauliflower roasted in curry powder, its smokiness makes the soft, charred cauliflower almost meaty-tasting.
Esther Miglio, chef and co-owner, OWT, Leeds
I’m French and both my grandmas use parsley all the time. It’s about 70p a bunch on Kirkgate Market and you can do amazing stuff with it. We use a lot of parsley sauce made with garlic, vinegar, mustard, oil, salt and pepper. You can put this vibrant green sauce on eggs, sandwiches, pasta or with fish. It keeps for five days in the fridge.
Belazu rose harissa
Helen Graham, head chef, Bubala, London
I use this to jazz up pasta sauces. It’s pretty punchy. Blend a tin of chopped tomatoes with one heaped tablespoon of harissa until smooth, cook for 30 minutes on a medium heat, season with salt, add pasta, parsley and feta and you’ve got a delicious dinner.
Andrew Chongsathien, Brother Thai, Cardiff
If you have a decent carbon-steel wok, ditch that wooden spoon and get a proper 14in plastic-handled stainless steel wok spatula, also known as a wok chuan or turner. Chinese supermarkets have them for about a fiver and because this shovel-like utensil is designed to fit the wok’s curves, it’s like having your own hand in there. It’s much easier to move things around and char them properly.
Lentils and pulses
Ravinder Bhogal, chef-founder, Jikoni, London
I stock up on every type of lentil and pulse I can to make dhal. LSD, life-saving dhal, as the great Madhur Jaffrey calls it. I never get bored of it. Hodmedods’ British lentils and pulses have become a cheap, reliable store-cupboard essential for me. I love to fry onion, garlic and dried mint, then braise the lentils with a punctured dried Iranian lime and veg stock. Add tons of parsley and dill at the end. It’s such a nourishing, flavourful meal with bread or rice.
Toban djan sauce
Larkin Cen, chef-owner, Woky Ko restaurants, Bristol
My secret weapon. A salty, savoury sauce made from chillies and fermented soy beans, which I use instead of salt in a lot of food. I put it on everything. It tastes delicious stirred into cooked rice.
Masha Rener, head chef, Lina Stores, London
I would recommend this to any home cook. After cutting freshly made gnocchi, you roll it softly across the board to score it, not just to make it pretty but also to create a better surface area for your pasta sauce to coat. This little board can also be used for different pastas as such garganelli and conchiglie.
Tom Cenci, chef-owner, Loyal Tavern, London
Marmite is essential in my cooking. Controversially, perhaps, I always add a teaspoon to the chicken broth in which I cook my goat meatballs. A dollop of this pungent, salty sauce in any meat or veggie dish, stock or stew adds a flavoursome punch.
£1 veg bowls
Pierre Koffmann, Koffmann’s Foods, London
I buy my vegetables at Church Street Market, near Edgware Road, London. The traders sell bowls of veg for £1. You might get five aubergines in one or a couple of white cabbages, which I use to make sauerkraut in the winter. For £5 you can get a grade-A French black-legged chicken. On Fridays, there is a chap who sells squabs for £2.50. It’s first class.
Ikea Kavalkad 24cm frying pan
Simon Hulstone, chef-owner, the Elephant, Torquay
Most non-stick pans last three months if you’re lucky and might cost £35. We buy 50 Ikea ones at a time for £2.75 each. The non-stick only lasts weeks in a professional kitchen, but then we just use them as normal pans until they die. I’ve been doing this over 10 years. They used to be 79p!
Paul Ainsworth, chef-owner, No 6 and Rojano’s, Padstow
Just a teaspoon of Gentleman’s Relish can elevate a simple tomato sauce into something really special. Anchovy paste is a great way to add serious depth to your cooking.