Are you tired of your pantry? Sick of standing in front of it, staring at its contents and hoping for something more interesting to materialise? Us too.
So, to find some inspiration for our next food shop and level-up our home-cooking game, we’re taking a squiz inside some others.
At her Melbourne restaurants – fast-casual chain Pho Nom, boozy beer-hall Bia Hoi, and neon-lit pan-Asian city diner Annam – chef Jerry Mai draws on her Vietnamese heritage, but you’ll also spot influences from Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, India and beyond.
There’s plenty of traditional Vietnamese influence too, often with a playful approach. Mai wants you mopping up the remnants of slow-cooked tamarind pork hock stew with Italian-style garlic bread. Or rolling up strips of charred Cape Grim beef and smoked yoghurt in a spring onion pancake, like a Vietnamese souvlaki. Or eating banh mi in cheeseburger form.
At home, her collection of instant noodles reflects this broad influence, with packs from all over Asia. Then she upgrades them with fried eggs, Asian greens and leftover meats.
What pantry staples can’t you live without?
There’s no better seasoning, in my opinion, than fish sauce. It’s salty and umami, and you can use it in almost anything to add depth of flavour. Fish sauce is like olive oil: it’s best to use a good brand and use the first press. My go-to brands are Du Son, Red Boat and Megachef – you can find them in Asian grocers.
Another staple at our place is rice – we eat rice with pretty much every meal. I mostly use jasmine rice, either Golden World or Pomelo brands.
Finally – and I know I might get some flak for this as a professional chef – but I really couldn’t live without instant noodles. I cook elaborate dishes so often at work, sometimes I really just want something simple and easy to put together at home. I’ll always pimp my instant noodles out with greens, a boiled egg with runny yolk and meat from the freezer. It’s a great opportunity to clear out the fridge.
That’s not to say there’s no variety, though. You can get so many different types of instant noodles from Asian grocers, from Thai to Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indonesian and more. Huy Huy on Victoria Street in Richmond stocks a wide range of Thai instant noodles which can be hard to find (I also get fresh herbs, veggies, jars, tins and sauces there). If I’m looking for Chinese ingredients, I head to Tang on Russell Street in the city. They have a huge selection of ramen and Szechuan-flavoured instant noodles. They’re also great for their fish balls and other ingredients for hot pots and instant noodles.
How do you keep things organised?
The simple answer to that is … I don’t. I guess over time my wife and I have come to a bit of an organic arrangement, like having all the sauces in the one place, and the important instant-noodle section of the pantry in another. But for the most part, it’s pretty free-form. It also doesn’t help that our three-year-old son pulls up his little stool and rummages around for snacks on a daily basis. Maybe he has a system we haven’t figured out yet.
What’s something just taking up space – you’re not sure what to do with it, or it just hasn’t had much use?
Sometimes if I want to try out a particular recipe, I’ll buy a particular ingredient and it won’t make its way into regular rotation in the kitchen. Also, when I have mates around to cook together, sometimes they’ll leave ingredients here. Shannon Martinez [of Smith & Daughters] left a jar of fermented chillies here a while ago and I must say I haven’t touched them since.
What are your go-to dishes when cooking at home?
Most of my go-to dishes are simple and homely Vietnamese recipes like soup or stir-fries. One particular family favourite at our place is kho – it’s a cooking method where you cook meat in a flavoured caramel made from sugar and fish sauce. I usually make chicken or pork kho and serve it with rice and fresh herbs.
What item is a simple shortcut to making something really special?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you can’t go past fish sauce. I use it in pretty much everything, from Asian cooking to Western dishes. It’s great in Italian food, like in seafood pasta dishes. I even add a splash to bolognaise; it adds a roundness to the overall flavour profile. Give it a go for yourself, but make sure you practice restraint – you can always add more, but you can’t take it away.
Is there anything that’s become a new staple for you, something you’re cooking with more now than before?
I recently discovered how useful chicken-stock powder can be, I guess in a similar way to fish sauce. It gives dishes a fuller flavour. I’ve been trying out the Knorr and Massel brands a lot in stir-fries and soups – not as a replacement, but in addition to other seasonings like soy sauce and fish sauce. It’s a simple way to get more meatiness into a dish.
Read more of Broadsheet’s Pandemic Pantries series here.