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.
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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.
Korean 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."
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."
Peruvian Cuisine Pro: Victor Albisu, Washington, D.C.
For this chef—who's trained in Peruvian, Cuban and Argentinian cuisines—Latin food is "very passionate, with vibrant flavors and rich meats complemented by vinegary herb sauces." But one budget-friendly option that the owner of D.C. eateries Taco Bamba and Del Campo suggests experimenting with at home, in particular, is Peruvian.
Prime Cuts Many Peruvian dishes, like lomo saltado (a beef and potato stir-fry), call for chicken, beef or ham. And, as everyone knows, meat can get pricey! Albisu's top tip: Find a reputable, local butcher. "It’s a good idea to have a relationship with your butcher," he says, because you can often pick the brain of that person to find cheaper cuts of meat for many dishes—from three-bone short ribs to cuts like plank steaks. "Generally, for $50, you can get pretty far this way."
If you don’t have or like a specific spice in an Indian recipe, Mehta says that you can just leave it out.
Special Sauce A versatile base sauce that's popular in Peruvian cuisine is sofrito, a flavorful puree comprised of simple, inexpensive vegetables. Taking the time to practice making your own version can make all the difference in spicing up numerous dishes, like arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), stews and even mashed potatoes. "When you make a sofrito, you cook onion, tomato, peppers and garlic for an extraordinary amount of time until it becomes its own ingredient," he says.
Want to learn more about Albisu—and try some of his dishes? Check out his flagship D.C. restaurant Del Campo.
Indian Cuisine Pro: Jehangir Mehta, New York City
Although preparing Indian fare comes as second nature to Jehangir Mehta, he's keenly aware that the cuisine can seem overwhelming for home cooks, "especially since the ingredient list is never-ending in most Indian cookbooks." But Mehta, who runs the acclaimed New York City restaurants Graffiti and Mehtaphor, says that there are tricks to cooking Indian dishes simply—and inexpensively.
The Spice of Life Mehta suggests choosing recipes that minimize the number of seasonings you'll need—like the kind that fellow Indian chef Floyd Cardoz highlights in his book, "One Spice, Two Spice." Aside from reducing the total cost of your ingredient bill, says Mehta, dishes that call for fewer spices are harder to mess up. He also notes that, if you can't find Indian markets in your area to buy spices, you can often scavenge deals online—or locate brick-and-mortar stores that will ship. And if you don’t have or like a specific spice in an Indian recipe, Mehta says that you can just leave it out: "One half a teaspoon of cumin, for example, is not going to devastate a dish with 17 other ingredients!"
Side Project Mehta sees nothing wrong with buying prepared Indian foods for sides—or even using them as a base for your own dishes. "If you go to Whole Foods, for example, and they have preseasoned lentils on sale, buy a pound of goat, put it in the lentils and then let the dish braise," he says. "You can save a lot of money cooking Indian food this way at home."
For more of Mehta's tips, pick up his book, "Mantra: The Rules of Indulgence."