Essentials: oils, starch, and stuff in jars

pantry sotcks jan 2017

In his 2000 book Hunger, Terry Durack, chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and the co-editor of the SMH Good Food Guide, listed the ‘bare essentials’ as he saw them for the home pantry.

‘You only need two oils (extra-virgin olive and peanut) and two vinegars (red wine and Japanese rice). Sauces are another matter. Paring it right down, you can get away with soy sauce, Thai fish sauce, chilli sauce, tomato ketchup and a good mango chutney. Add mustard and a whole egg mayonnaise, if you’re a sandwich-maker. Anchovy fillets are critical, as are salted capers and dried Asian mushrooms. You can’t have too many cans of tomatoes or canned tuna or beans (borlotti, cannellini, whatever). Then there are noodles, pasta, rice (Arborio and jasmine), couscous and stock – either frozen or long-life – plus instant dashi…From that one intelligently stocked pantry you can put together literally hundreds of different meals.’

Durack can be reasonably described as a foodie in current parlance, someone with an ardent interest in food who seeks food experiences not simply out of convenience or hunger but for the pleasure of the whole experience of consuming food, and in his case also because it is his job. His list captures a particular moment in the development of Australian cuisine, one that increasingly incorporated a wide range of influences from immigrant cultures, and from extensive travel by Australians in the last decades of the 20th century, particularly to near Asia.

I wondered what a list of pantry essentials would look like nearly 20 years on for a cohort of my friends who, while they would not see themselves necessarily as foodies, do draw from a range of cuisines when cooking at home. How similar are their essentials to Durack’s, what are the differences, and what does that suggest about the persistence or movement of cuisine influences at the Australian table?

Well, plus ça change plus c’est même chose. Olive oil was the most commonly shared item, sometimes specified as first cold pressed/extra virgin.  (As an aside, I can’t tell you how long it took me to realise that EVO was not a domaine nor an appellation nor a generic brand.) Peanut oil didn’t feature which may be down to playing it safe when guests come, but sesame oil and plain old everyday vegetable/canola oil make appearances.

Tomatoes were ubiquitous – canned diced, crushed or pureed, as paste or sauce (not, thankfully, ketchup). Garlic also has made its way from the cautious to the essential. Fish sauce and soy sauce were common, with oyster, hoi sin, sweet chili and – blast from the past – Worcestershire sauces getting a look in. Vinegar now may also be rice or red wine based. Stock – undefined. Capers are holding their ground and have been joined by anchovies. Canned tuna continues to have its place, and mackerel and sardines were also mentioned.

Pastas and rice (long grain the only on particularised) dominate the starch stakes, with couscous also popular. Freekeh is a relatively recent entry. Lentils and chick peas have joined the pulses. Peanut butter snuck its way in, too.

Chilli flakes have joined generic spices and herbs and palm sugar has entered the sweetener sweep.

Outliers included tamari, pomegranate molasses, sambal terasi, deep frozen lemons and limes and sumac.

What does this disclose of food habits? They haven’t changed much in two decades. Asian and Italian influences are now inextricably a part of Australian cuisine. Middle eastern cuisines are increasingly influential. We no longer can be accused of having bland palates and blander foods. And we still all have ‘stuff in jars that I’m not sure about’ but are sure will be useful, if not trend setting, some day