When you need to stick to a tight budget, spices and other flavourings are often the first thing to go. After all, they don’t add calories or that many nutrients (though some are supposed to be quite good for you) and you don’t “need” them to make a filling, healthy meal.
On the other hand, I often think a pinch or two of the right spice is what makes a cheap meal go from barely edible to tasty and satisfying. It’s why I still buy fresh garlic and ginger and real lemons and limes, and fresh herbs if I’m not growing them – they cost only a little extra per use but make you still feel like you’re treating yourself, even on a budget. After all, food is one of my favourite things (can you tell??) and the last thing I’d want to do is deprive myself!
If you are on a really tight budget and haven’t got a stock of spices, you might not know where to start – you can hardly just buy everything on the shelf all at once. What is recommend is buying one every week, whenever you have a spare £1 in the budget, until you have a few in.
The best way to buy them is either in the ethnic section at Tesco or in local ethnic grocers (we luckily have a few in Glasgow but appreciate rural areas might not). In both these places, you can buy 100g bags instead of them 40-50g pots, and they’re better value – usually 79p in the ethnic grocers, 99p in Tesco and I got 4 for £2 in Tesco last time as they were on offer.
To make this work, you need to know where spices work and be willing to experiment and substitute them for others in recipes. I did a bit of ‘research’ amongst my colleagues, my sister and Dave, asking them what their favourite spice was and what they’d have if they could only have three.
At my work, the far and away favourite spice was smoked paprika – which is definitely a favourite of mine, too. One of my colleagues, who bakes a lot, offered cinnamon, and my sister went with ordinary paprika (which is probably more versatile than the smoked variety, and often cheaper too).
When asked what they’d buy if they could only have three, most said some combination of either paprika, cayenne or crushed chillies, with cumin and a decent curry powder or garam masala – my sister went with turmeric and Dave and one colleague both put in a good word for nutmeg. But it is really personal – if you only like mild food but bake a lot, you might not want curry powder but might go for ground ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg.
I’ve done a very biased list below of what spices to buy in your first month, what you can substitute them for and which I’d buy first (if absolutely starting from scratch, the first thing is buy would be salt and black peppercorns with a grinder).
- If I could genuinely only get one spice, I’d get cayenne pepper or potentially paprika. Paprika is milder but has a lovely flavour, whereas cayenne mostly adds heat. Smoked paprika is also absolutely gorgeous but not as versatile, as you don’t necessarily want everything to taste smoky. I put in a good argument for crushed dried chillies here, as they’re probably my most used spice, but colleagues pointed out you can buy fresh or grow your own instead. You can also substitute paprika or cayenne pepper for chilli in most recipes if needed.
- Next on my list would be garam masala or else a good curry powder – Madras is my favourite. Use these along with your cayenne and fresh garlic/ginger to make very basic curries, or on their own to make mild curried soups and stews, or sweetcorn/veggie fritters. Fresh garlic and ginger will liven things up as well.
- Another basic (for me) is mixed spice, which is a sweeter spice mix you can use to make vaguely Middle Eastern foods or add to your cayenne in a chilli or curry to make it a bit more aromatic. You can also use it in baking or desserts in place of cinnamon and/or nutmeg. OR go for ground/whole coriander – useful for curries, soups and stews, and goes really well with carrot – so you can make a cheaper carrot & coriander soup without using fresh leaves if you want.
- Ground/whole cumin is another favourite of mine. I have both but ground is probably more useful unless you have an electric mini grinder thing as it gets annoying using a mortar and pestle. One of the most popular spices and used in curries, curried soups and I also put it in chilli and my Spanish-style stew.
- If you’re a vegetarian or getting more veggie meals as part of trying to save cash, I’d prioritise smoked paprika if you have any spare cash left this month, as it’s so fantastic at giving veggie tomato-based stews that smoky flavour that people associate with chorizo and is also nice to dust halloumi, tofu or paneer in if you’re grilling them. Or add to a sundried tomato risotto – yum. If it’s not your thing, go for turmeric instead, which will last for ages, as you only use a pinch in the water whenever you cook lentils or pulses and it adds a lovely but subtle flavour (you can also rub steak in it before griddling, add to curries or use it to turn your rice yellow).
At the end of the month, you should have at least five spices, and you can fill in the gaps and experiment more as you go after that. In fact, I think I might do a post next week detailing all the spices I have and what I use them for (and confess which never get used – and yes, that is my spice rack pictured at the top of this post – it took me a long time to build up so many!). Oh and I haven’t gone into dried herbs here. In fact, I’m not a big fan, though I seem to own most of them anyway, (erm…might have a bit of spice addiction), but anyway, if you can only afford one I’d go for oregano, which is my favourite by far, and then rosemary or thyme (though fresh thyme is much better).
What’s your favourite spice, and what would you buy first if you could only afford one? What did you start with when you were learning to cook? Are you a fan of chilli or would you prefer to get milder, more aromatic spices?