John Waters once said not to sleep with anyone who doesn’t own books. I have a similar adage concerning balsamic vinegar. There’s something revelatory about the snapshot of a strangers’ tastes given by the pantry-staple pantheon.
I’m not above judging other people for their choices. Mixed herbs? I’m not at a point in my culinary journey where thyme is all that different to rosemary, but I have the good grace not to flaunt my ignorance so brazenly. Siracha will always win my admiration, with its vibrant colour and promise to zhoosh up any meal, while the use of malt vinegar for anything but cleaning lets me know where I’m not welcome.
On my list of essentials, there’s paprika, because the smoky flavour reminds me of chorizo-filled family holidays to Spain. Soy sauce, because it’s a takeaway in a bottle, making fried rice and peas feel kingly. Chilli flakes, because I’m not a coward.
The dream, hazy and yet unrealised, is to scan an Ottolenghi and realise I already have everything I need. Like a neatly made bed or a Solo account with no pending returns, a well-stocked pantry goes a long way towards a general sense of wellbeing.
Perhaps this is unrealistic when shelf space is as scarce as fixed-rent property in London. In student kitchens, everything must have a purpose. A bag of dessicated coconut left over from a new dal recipe needs to find another life, because it’s taking up space usually reserved for pasta. So it goes into the cabbage I’m frying, with ginger and lime juice, and I’m not disappointed. Perhaps there’s a bright side to this nomadic lifestyle, where the rush to use everything up before the end of term spurs on the most creative dishes.
In lieu of a freezer or even much fridge room, the pantry comprises a backbone from which miracles can be wrought. Baked beans are ripe for experimentation, infinitely more interesting spiked with crushed garlic, barbeque sauce and a handful of kale. Tinned soup can be bulked out with chickpeas and chopped tomatoes, with a few herbs or spices chucked in to up the flavour.
And couscous! I could write an ode to couscous. It’ll forgive any strange assortment of vegetables, especially when dressed with salt, olive oil and vinegar. It asks no special treatment and takes up no more space than it needs – it just sits there, ready to fluff into life within ten minutes of putting the kettle on. This is the best kind of cooking: exploratory, gentle on mistakes, and endlessly adaptable.