Last night, I served grilled chicken with an Asian twist. I marinated the chicken in teriyaki sauce and chilli paste before grilling it and served it up with potatoes tossed in Chinese spices and toasted sesame oil.
All I had done was take a classic combination and give it a spin based on what I had at home, but my family loved it. We eat a lot of varied meals in our home today — Chinese, Italian, Bengali, Maharashtrian, Thai, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Mexican, Spanish… But it wasn’t always like this.
There was a time when I had come to hate cooking. Cooking RDBS (roti-dal-bhat-sabzi) had become routine, I had to cater three meals a day, my family wanted variety or plates would go untouched, and inflation did not help.
Then, one afternoon, I woke up frustrated at the thought of yet another dinner waiting to be cooked and postponed making the rajma I had soaked, opting to take my kids down to the park instead.
I arrived there to find a heated discussion underway among the other mothers, over whether the bean stuffing in tacos comprised baked beans or rajma. Recalling the delicious tacos my aunt had once made, I rang her to check. It turned out that the stuffing could be either — rajma if one had the time, or baked beans as a quick alternative.
This was a eureka moment for me. Realising that I had rajma ready at home, I asked her for the recipe and rushed back, stopping by at a local grocery store along the way to pick up taco shells. Dinner that night was a resounding success.
Tacos with the works brought about a welcome change, did not put me out of pocket (not too much, anyway) and, most importantly, my family loved it.
For me, there has been no looking back. I still make my Mexican tacos. I also make a mean Italian spread in which my biggest expense is the pasta (but it stretches to two meals, so even that is negligible), and a delicious Vietnamese pho rice noodle dish.
The truth is, you don’t need to break the bank to dish up unusual food. Cuisines around the world have many ingredients in common — most of us just never took the time to notice.
Just start thinking out of the box with ingredients you have at hand and you’ll see what I mean. You can start with something simple, like onions or potatoes. Onions can be sliced into a classic French onion soup or fried into crispy onion rings. With the addition of a few other ingredients, you could also do a do-pyaza dish, coq au vin (braised chicken in wine) or a Greek salad.
As for potatoes, well, you can bake them whole, top them with cheddar cheese or sour cream and chives in the American way, or you can mash them with milk and butter as a side dish. You can also make them into a one-dish Italian gnocchi.
Even masoor dal doesn’t have to be masoor dal. This Indian staple is used extensively in the Mediterranean and Middle East to prepare hearty, nutritious soups, and in Europe and the Americas, it is combined with chicken and pork to form a savoury main course.
Similarly, just about every vegetable available to us can be cooked in a myriad different ways. Your options are immediately further multiplied once you rope in your spice rack and store cupboard.
And if you get stuck, don’t forget there’s the internet.
(Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal is an author, blogger and food consultant. Look out for Spice Route on the first Sunday of every month)