3 Chefs, 3 Cuisines: Money-Saving Secrets of the Masters

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korean cuisine

Chapchae, a classic Korean dish

Sometimes you just can’t bring yourself to eat yet another helping of grilled chicken for the third night in a row.

A clever solution to this common culinary conundrum: What about mixing it up with some Korean buchingae or perhaps Peruvian sofrito one night?

Say what? If you didn’t grow up eating such dishes, preparing meals from other cultures can be daunting even for more experienced home cooks. And when budgeting is an issue, people often defer to the tried and true—but it’s not always as tricky (or expensive!) to cook foreign dishes in your own kitchen.

So we reached out to three high-profile foodies—Korean chef Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, Indian restaurateur Jehangir Mehta and Peruvian chef Victor Albisu—to find out how we can make authentic, high-end meals from the cuisines that they know best without overspending.

Cecilia Hae-Jin LeeKorean Cuisine Pro: Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, Los Angeles

“The beauty of Korean cooking is that it’s seasonal and regional—it’s based on what happens to be growing at the time, and what can be fished or farmed nearby,” says James Beard Award–nominated writer and chef Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, who shares some insider tips for cooking Korean classics.

Grains Go a Long Way Lee says that since Korean food isn’t meat-heavy, you can plan an entire meal around a base of inexpensive rice or noodles. Korean food historically comes from poverty, so even special-occasion dishes—like Korean savory pancakes—aren’t pricey to whip up at home. “Even if you make flat cakes (also called jeon or buchingae) from a purchased mix, you can cook dozens of them from just one bag,” says Lee. “That’s why flat cakes have traditionally been a dish for feasts—you can feed the whole village without breaking the bank.”

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No Special Spices Needed Lee adds that the Korean pantry doesn’t rely on as many unusual ingredients as you might think. Plus, you can buy Korean seasoning staples, like chile powder and sesame seeds, in bulk (typically available in Korean markets or at such online sites as The Savory Spice Shop and My Spice Sage), which makes them cheaper. “I usually end up buying a large bag of spices, and then I share it with my mom and sister,” she says, adding that you can prepare several Korean dishes—such as chapchae (stir-fried Korean noodles) or sigumchi namul, seasoned Korean spinach—using just garlic, soy sauce and high-quality sesame oil (made from toasted seeds) without even having to buy extra spices.

The Wonders of Kimchi In Korean cooking, kimchi (seasoned, fermented vegetables) is much more than just a side dish—it can be used to make fried rice and pancakes, and you can even season hamburgers, tacos and meatloaf with it. In other words, its versatility is a boon to home cooks, who can make several dishes using just one jar. “If you don’t have a Korean mom or grandma who can make you kimchi from scratch,” says Lee, “there are many affordable places to buy it now—even Costco sells it!”

Want more of Lee’s expert advice, plus a look at some of her own delicious recipes? Check out her book, “Eating Korean.”