Recession Buster Meals: Eating Better for Way Less

I'm embarrassed to say, for the first 40 odd years of my life, I actually had zero culinary skills. Growing up, we always had a helper at home to cook and clean, and during Home Economics class in school, I was paired up with a girl who was Mommy's Little Helper in the kitchen. She did all the cooking, whilst I did all the washing up.


Things took a drastic turn in my 41st year of existence. We were on a ski holiday in Canada, when I suddenly received a frantic call from one of our helpers. We had 2 Indonesian helpers at that time, Tanirih and Eka. Tanirih had woken up to find Eka not in the house, and Tanirih's savings had all gone missing. I quickly rang my aunt who immediately drove over with my uncle to investigate the situation. They discovered that all the money I had left behind with Eka to pay for groceries, the pool cleaner and gardener was also gone, along with our laptops, tablets and some other gadgets!


We accessed the cctv footage remotely in Canada and saw Eka moving from room to room with a large trash bag, burgeoning as she went along. We watched helplessly as she dragged a heavy suitcase down the driveway and exited the house.


That was the defining moment. That very second I decided that I would learn to cook to feed the family, so we would no longer be held ransom by helpers! For decades, we needed helpers around to prepare our meals. We had to swallow our pride and bite our tongue no matter how furious we were, just because we depended on them to cook, and could not afford to offend them for fear of them spitting, adding urine or swirling a used sanitary pad in our food!


YouTube videos on cooking, Tanirih and my agent friend were my saviours. They taught me to peel, cut, slice, chop, blend, mash, grind, fry, boil, steam, bake, pairing ingredients, etc. I binge-watched cooking channels and looked up recipes in NoobCook, Rasa Malaysia, etc.


Being a foodie, eating was a lifelong passion, but up until then, I'd never really made anything myself. I was so hopeless at cooking that I could actually fail my Home Economics class cooking a bowl of instant noodles! After digesting what my saviours and online recipes had taught me, everything suddenly made sense and became simple.


Since then, I've been preparing meals for the family. I take charge of the marketing, decide on the menu each day, and cook the meals. By doing so, I make sure that there's zero wastage. Water used to wash rice and vegetables is not poured down the sink, but used to water the plants. Vegetables which are about to wilt or turn yellow are cooked first. Bones and prawn shells are saved to make broth. Leftovers are refrigerated and consumed the next day.


When helpers were in charge of the kitchen, wastage was rife. I would always be given a long list of groceries to buy, but a good portion of the vegetables actually went into the bin because they had either yellowed or become mouldy from moisture in the crisper. The menus were unimaginative and revolved around what the helpers felt like cooking, which was always the same. They didn't care that perishables should be used first, or that water was precious and should be saved, or that electricity and gas were not cheap here, or that leftovers should be reheated the next day instead of being hidden at the back of the fridge till they turned bad.


I used to think cooking was a complex affair and a proper meal needed at least 3 hours in the kitchen to prepare. What a complete idiot I was! The helpers took advantage of my cluelessness and the 6 hours per day I had set aside to prepare lunch and dinner to hide in their room and use their mobile phones. We eventually found out that one of them was stripping naked to video call construction workers in her room. Over the years, we really did amass quite a string of true blue helper horror stories, from bringing construction worker boyfriends into our house when we were away to sneaking out to prostitute themselves at night.


Alas, I digress. The long and short of it all is marketing and cooking are not daunting tasks. If planned properly, they do not take up much time, will produce rewarding results, can lead to zero wastage, and help the family save plenty of money.


Until the Circuit Breaker came along, we used to dine out several times a week at cafes and restaurants. Since then, we've been preparing most of our meals at home, saving ourselves a tidy bundle.


It was also a blessing in disguise that it was virtually impossible to obtain delivery slots from online supermarkets during the Circuit Breaker because wholesalers and other suppliers started to sell direct to consumers through platforms like Qoo10. I switched to buying direct from food suppliers on Qoo10 and, with the use of coupons, found prices to be lower than that at supermarkets.

The staples in my kitchen are sunflower cooking oil, sesame oil, low sodium salt, black and white pepper, light and dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, Plum Blossom hua tiao chiew (Chinese cooking wine), garlic, onion, ginger, red chili, chili padi, tomato, coriander and spring onion. These items form the backbone of my kitchen. Paired with other ingredients, they can produce many different dishes. Here are pix showing some of the fun I've been having in the kitchen. All easy to prepare and made at a fraction of the cost of dining out.


Steamed Garlic Prawns on a Bed of Tang Hoon

Cost of Large Tiger Prawns (21 to 25 pieces) from Qoo10: S$13.99

Cost of 1 packet of Pasar Dried Bean Vermicelli (150g) from Fairprice: S$1.00

Cost of minced garlic, hua tiao chiew, light and dark soy sauce, and coriander: S$1.00 or less

Total cost: S$15.99


Chilli Crab

Cost of 3 Live Crabs (400g each) from Qoo10: S$27.40 (based on buying 6 crabs and using 3)

Cost of 1 bottle of Sing Long Seafood Chilli Crab Sauce (380g): S$4.80

Cost of 1 egg and coriander: Less than S$0.30

Total cost: S$32.50


HK-Style Steamed Sea Bass

Cost of 1 Sea Bass (700-800g) from Qoo10: S$8.00

Cost of ginger, red chilli, garlic, light soy sauce, sesame oil, hua tiao chiew, white pepper and coriander: about S$1.00

Total cost: S$9.00


Pot of Mussels & Shrimps

Cost of 1 pack of Blue Mussels (500g) from Qoo10: S$5.00

Cost of half pack of Black Tiger Prawn meat (500g) from Qoo10: S$7.75 (based on buying a 1kg pack and using half)

Cost of butter, chopped tomatoes, garlic, coriander, chicken stock and black pepper: about S$1.50

Total cost: S$14.25


Garlic Steak Frites

Cost of 1 piece of Australian Meltique Marbled Striploin Steak (130g) from Qoo10: S$5.36 (based on buying a pack of 8 pieces and using 1)

Cost of shoestring fries: S$0.40 (based on buying a 2.5kg bag and using a handful)

Cost of butter, salt, black pepper, garlic, broccoli and carrots: Less than S$1.00

Total cost: S$6.76


Prawn Aglio Olio

Cost of Black Tiger Prawn meat (100g) from Qoo10: S$1.55 (based on buying a 1kg pack and using 100g)

Cost of spaghetti, olive oil, chilli padi, garlic, salt, black pepper and coriander: Less than S$1.00

Total cost: S$2.55


Tuscan Butter Salmon with Creamy Garlic Mash

Cost of 1 piece of Salmon from Qoo10: S$3.93 (based on buying a pack of 3 and using 1)

Cost of potatoes, garlic, butter, cooking cream, grated parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, frozen spinach and chopped tomatoes: About S$4.00

Total cost: S$7.93


Spaghetti alle Vongole

Cost of 1/3 pack of Flower Clam (300g) from Qoo10: S$2.00 (based on buying a 1kg pack and using 1/3)

Cost of spaghetti, olive oil, chilli padi, garlic, salt, black pepper, chicken stock and coriander: Less than S$1.50

Total cost: S$3.50


Black Pepper Yakiniku

Cost of 1 pack of USA Beef Shortplate (500g) from Qoo10: S$7.20 (hammered for tenderness)

Cost of tri-coloured capsicum, onion, garlic, dark and light soy sauce, hua tiao chiew and black pepper: About S$2.00

Total cost: S$9.20

Air-fried Sio Bak (Roast Pork Belly)

Cost of 1 pack of Pork Belly (500g) from Qoo10: S$7.00

Cost of salt, belacan, sesame oil, five spice powder and white pepper: About S$0.50

Total cost: S$7.50


The prices from Qoo10 above are before the use of shopping coupons to reduce the prices further. Suppliers selling direct on Qoo10 have made a radical change to marketing by housewives. In addition to better prices, you can do your marketing from the comfort of your own home and have the heavy load delivered to your doorstep. There's no longer the need to go squish squash across dirty wet market floors, put up with the stench and struggle with heavy bags. Same may argue that fresh food is best, but honestly, with food frozen at source, they taste just as good and is probably more hygienic.

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