Stay-home guide: Eight useful pantry staples to have in the time of coronavirus

Dried shiitake mushrooms.
Dried shiitake mushrooms. PHOTOS: BT FILE, FAIRPRICE, ST FILE
Dried beancurd skin.
Dried beancurd skin. PHOTOS: BT FILE, FAIRPRICE, ST FILE
Hardy vegetables and fruit.
Hardy vegetables and fruit. PHOTOS: BT FILE, FAIRPRICE, ST FILE
Canned fish.

In this strange time of coronavirus, when shoppers faster, bigger and more cunning than you grab first and think later, you should just let them. Let the hordes be led by herd instincts. You can plan and strategise.

Here are eight staples to stock up on, chosen for their versatility. Remember to shop sensibly, sparing a thought for others who cannot afford to buy hundreds of dollars of groceries in one go.

And not every family eats the same way. My staple is not likely to be yours. Keep calm, consider your family's needs, and carry on.


Avoid the stampede in the instant-noodle aisle and head to the rice section. This staple is a must, and if your family is up to it, there is red cargo rice, brown rice and other delicious options, apart from white.

I cannot think of a more versatile pantry staple - eaten with dishes, fried with whatever is in the fridge and made into congee for a comforting meal. If you are more adventurous, use it to make musubi or onigiri, Hawaiian and Japanese rice balls respectively. Or bake with meat and cheese, and use for salads.

If white jasmine is out of stock, look for other kinds of white rice. Japanese short grain rice is just as versatile and can be used in place of long grain white for most dishes. Basmati is aromatic and makes beautiful fried rice.


I would suggest pasta instead of noodles simply because it is more versatile. At a pinch, spaghetti, or its thinner cousin, spaghettini, can be used in place of noodles for your favourite Asian noodle dishes, but I would find it hard to imagine Chinese egg noodles with pesto.

Think beyond red sauce for the pasta. Slice up garlic, open a tin of anchovies and saute both with olive oil, then toss with cooked spaghetti for a simple meal filled with umami. Make a creamy pasta dinner with diced ham, frozen peas and button mushrooms sauteed with sliced onions, then add cooking cream and bubble gently until thickened, before tossing with cooked pasta. If stretched for time, you do not even have to wait for the water to boil for the pasta. Google "one-pan pasta" for the quickest noodle meal you can make without resorting to instant.

Stir-fry cooked noodles with meat, seafood and vegetables to make Japanese yakisoba, and if you have packets of instant laksa or chicken curry paste, use spaghetti in place of Asian noodles for these dishes. If feeling poorly, spaghetti or spaghettini in chicken stock with meat and vegetables is restorative.


They weigh next to nothing but punch way above their weight in terms of flavour. Fresh mushrooms need to be used up quickly, but dried ones can sit in the pantry, well sealed, for months.

Rehydrated and sliced, they can be added to fried noodles and vegetable stir-fries for a blast of umami. They will add soul and depth to hot and sour soup too. Whole rehydrated mushrooms are good in braised dishes, soaking up flavour like mini sponges.

I like to stuff whole rehydrated mushrooms with minced pork mixed with scallions, then steam them for a comforting dish to eat with rice.

The meaty texture of dried shiitake is satisfying and endlessly useful in vegetarian dishes too. But rehydrating is not the only way to use them. I grate the dried mushrooms on a fine grater to make shiitake powder. It adds a depth of flavour to meatballs and wontons. Or sprinkle the magic dust as a finishing touch to risotto.

Waste no part of the mushrooms. Save the stems and add to the stockpot. Strain the soaking water to remove the grit and use it to flavour soup or mushroom risotto.


While shopping in a supermarket with a friend, she stopped to pick up a bag of tau kee and said she always has one in her pantry. Dried beancurd skin, like dried shiitake mushrooms, will last months in the pantry, but I love the stuff so I am always replenishing my stocks.

It is very versatile. Make a Chinese sweet soup using the tau kee, ginkgo nuts and pearl barley in lightly sweetened water. Serve cold on a hot day.

Savoury applications abound too. Braise with dried mushrooms and tau kwa or firm beancurd in a soya braising sauce, rehydrate and add to vegetarian fried noodles, deep-fry and use the crisp skin as a topping for those noodles, simmer in sayur lodeh to add protein to the vegetable curry or add to stir-fries.


Although my freezer is packed with meat and fish, the vegetable bin of the fridge is never filled. Why waste money stocking up when they go bad so quickly? But I always have a few staples on hand: a head of cabbage, a couple of carrots and a pack of sugar snap peas. I find these vegetables last the longest.

All three can be eaten raw or cooked. They can be shredded to make a coleslaw or tossed with a spicy peanut dressing, stir-fried for a quick meal, or added to soupy noodles. I like the crunch that snap peas give to a beef stir-fry, and often eat them raw.

Think also about frozen vegetables. I boil frozen edamame beans in salted water to eat as a snack or add them to salads. Frozen peas can also be added to all sorts of dishes. Or mash them, add butter and pepper, and eat with meat pies. Cooked gently with stock, they transform into a delicious soup in a blender, especially if you flavour the stock with a ham bone or other smoked meat trimmings.

Citrus fruit such as lemons, limes and grapefruit last pretty long in the fridge and can be eaten or juiced. Never waste the zest - use them in cakes, cookies, salad dressings and marinades.


I cannot think of anything more unglamorous - or more useful - to have in the pantry. Yes, canned fish. My pick would be canned sardines because they are an inexpensive source of protein and can be eaten cold if needed.

Warm up a can with sliced shallots and chillies, squeeze calamansi limes over it and eat with hot rice. Mash and use as a sandwich filling for breakfast or at tea time. If feeling fancy while stuck at home, make sardine puffs with frozen sheets of puff pastry. My mother fries beehoon with canned sardines and it is a simple, filling and inexpensive dish to make.

But there are other kinds of canned fish to consider. Intensely flavoured anchovies will add depth to soups and stews and disintegrate to nothing so the kids will not even know they are there. Or top homemade pizza with them.

Canned mackerel, trout and salmon can be put to good use in salads. Or use them to make fish cakes with mashed potatoes. All are good as sandwich fillings too.


Inexpensive and indispensable. Eggs provide protein and can be used in any number of ways, sweet and savoury. Store them in the fridge so they last longer.

Apart from the usual ways to eat them, try making shakshuka, a Middle Eastern baked egg dish that is good for one or for a crowd, or ramen eggs with oozy yolks to stash in the fridge for snacking. Or perfect your tamagoyaki skills and look up recipes for gyeran jjim, Korean-style steamed eggs. All are easy to make and satisfying to eat.


This last staple is something I thought long and hard over. It was between miso and kimchi. Both are endlessly versatile and good for gut health. But kimchi wins over miso because it adds fibre to the diet. In a Korean restaurant, you are served kimchi as a banchan at the start of the meal. Serve it alongside rice and dishes at home for crunch and spice.

But kimchi can also be used in fried rice and made into pancakes with flour. It is delicious in a grilled cheese sandwich too. The fermented cabbage is essential in budae jjigae or Korean army stew, easily made with other pantry staples such as luncheon meat and canned sausages. Or simply stir-fry it with thinly sliced pork or pieces of chicken.

Go to Future Neighbor on YouTube for easy kimchi recipes.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 05, 2020, with the headline Eight useful pantry staples to have in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe