• A breakfast fry-up using what's already in your fridge could be ingenious. (Candice Chung)Source: Candice Chung
Improvised recipes are a game of chutzpah and hope.
Candice Chung

27 Apr 2020 - 12:28 PM  UPDATED 27 Apr 2020 - 1:59 PM

Like a houseful of Englishmen, my family ate a lot of fry-ups for breakfast. But unlike the beer-swilling traditionalists, dad didn't believe in bacon. The age-old hangover cure was met at best with scepticism - the streaky strips too rich, too salty for his Cantonese palate. 

Spam was his mystery meat of choice. The smooth, jelly-slicked stuff sliced thin were fried to a porky crisp with his perfect sunny-side ups. My sister and I ate our fry-ups with Wonder White, baked beans and general enthusiasm. From dad, we learned that those suspicious things can be substituted. Sometimes with odder, but more familiar stuff.

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Mum held her own in the improvisation department. 'Bolognese' starred regularly in our kitchen, and yet I'd never seen a single jar of passata until I was a wage-earning adult. At home, the sauce was made with an onion-y ketchup. Savoury notes were helped along by a swig of soy and the mince was deglazed by rice wine: the same finishing touches she would put in a stir-fry, for good luck.

My makeshift wins
Cheat's pizza

When you don't have time to make pizza dough from scratch, using flatbread is a great alternative. Plus, you can opt for wholemeal flatbreads for a little extra nourishment.

Malaysian laksa (cheat's laksa)

This laksa combines fresh ingredients with a commercial laksa paste, meaning a lot of the prep work is done for you. To make this recipe even easier, place the garnishes in the centre of the table, allowing diners to assemble their laksa to taste.

Cheat's couscous with seven vegetables

As well as improving the flavour of the couscous, the vegetables in this vegetarian recipe look colourful and delicious together and the whole dish can be on the table in well under an hour. 

Makeshift cooking is a game of chutzpah and hope. When you have no flour at home, but five tins of condensed milk and no vinegar but a spectrum of soy (light, dark, sweet, Maggi), a little ingenuity is required behind most meals.

"When you have no flour at home, but five tins of condensed milk, a little ingenuity is required behind most meals."

And there's nothing like a cookbook recipe to test that pioneering spirit. I learnt from my very first — part of the glossy Australian Women's Weekly collection — just how fantastical some ordinary home-cooked dinners could be.

That I still lived with my parents and made an anti-social purchase of 'Cooking for Two' was beside the point. At 19, and plotting a future of middle-aged nights in with my first serious boyfriend, I was determined to master some 'classic' dishes. But a quick scan through the instructions showed most things were out of reach.

The spices and herbs listed had never entered my parents' Asian pantry. A steak called for a heavyset griddle pan, butter (we used margarine) and a Shiraz to deglaze the pan, but none of that existed. Even a simple roast dinner required a working oven —an area of my parents' kitchen that functioned (and functions still) as storage.  

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Dejected, I saw the missing ingredients as gaps in our lives that were bigger than anything to do with Salt Fat Acid Heat. I had not known then what Iranian-American chef Samin Nosrat would say in her seminal book about the elements of good cooking. How instead of feeling disheartened by a list of intimidating instructions, we would do well to let our senses to guide us — that recipes, in fact, "are like training wheels". Something we might be able to let go of once we find our feet.

I was recently reminded of Nosrat's wisdom as I stared at my quarantine pantry. Hungry, and at the tail end of my fresh groceries, my cupboard had 'shelf-stable' items that ranged from tinned beetroot, 'fried dace with black beans' and a half jar of olives that predated COVID-19. In other words, a band of misfits.

That lunchtime, as I put together a taco of fermented fried dace and sliced beetroot, I take heart in my parents' and Nosrat's gutsiness in breaking free of the confines of old recipes.

The odd coupling of the black-vermilion topping would've brought a smile to dad's face. Surprisingly, It tasted OK.

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