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Truc

Susan Jung

 

If anyone doubts that nature abhors a vacuum, they need only look in my kitchen. No matter what size flat I'm living in, the amount of food products I have somehow expands or contracts to fit the shelf space. The only reason my present kitchen is not stuffed to over-overflowing (that's not a typo) is that my husband periodically asks me to look through the shelves, requesting (strongly) that I throw out things that I don't use or like (which I do), items that have passed their expiry date (which I sometimes do) and products he thinks I have too much of (which I ignore). I suspect that when I'm not looking, he throws away whatever he thinks I don't need.

It's hard for me to keep the shelves under control because I'm constantly buying ingredients for Post Magazine recipe photoshoots, to taste-test them for columns, and often just for the simple fact that I want to examine a product I'm curious about. I also collect food when I go on holiday, and am given edible gifts by friends. I know through bitter experience that if I throw away something today, I'll need it tomorrow and that the supermarkets will be out of it until I no longer need it, so I keep some ingredients on hand "just in case".

While I don't consider too much food to be a major problem, there's little doubt that most Hong Kong kitchens aren't built for keeping large amounts of ingredients on hand. But gone are the days when the cook of the household had time to shop on a daily basis, buying fresh ingredients that would last for just the day's meals, only storing staples such as rice, salt and soy sauce.

So, in yet another "do as I say, not as I do" column, here's some advice on keeping the kitchen shelves from buckling.

Bottled and jarred ingredients have a limited shelf life. It's not nearly as rigid as the expiration date would have you believe - if the "use by" date is today, the product won't suddenly turn bad overnight. But if there's a dusty bottle of soy sauce in the back of your cupboard, open it and take a sniff - if it smells bad, throw it away and replace it with another (smaller) bottle.

In fact, smaller bottles can be a good thing. Yes, they're not as economical as big bottles on a dollar-per-gram basis, but if you end up throwing away half the bottle because it goes bad before you've had the chance to use it all, that's not cost-effective. And, besides, if you buy smaller bottles, you can fit more of them on the shelves.

The ability to improvise is a fantastic skill. Recipes aren't nearly as rigid as the writers would have you believe. Yes, you need the core ingredients: you can't substitute another type of flour for plain white flour in a recipe without your pastry turning out very different from what it was intended to be, and, obviously, you can't make lemon chicken without lemons (so choose another recipe). But the world isn't going to end if you substitute one herb or spice for another, as long as you do it judiciously. If a specific chilli sauce is called for and you only have another type, it's usually fine to use it, at least if it's used in a small enough quantity that the precise flavours can't be detected anyway. Some ingredients are used to add depth of flavour to a dish. If a recipe calls for a small amount of pancetta (or another ingredient) to flavour a dish and you don't have any, you can almost certainly leave it out or substitute another product with a similar flavour - the result won't be exactly the same, but it's fine as long as it still tastes good.

Truc (tryk): noun, masculine, trick, gimmick, device. A French word for a chef's secret.

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