The last couple weeks have been pretty interesting here on good old planet Earth. My recent posts discussed about our plan for Healthcare after the ACA, and even Secular Stagnation and poor real GDP growth. Pretty serious stuff.
So I think it’s time I took things down a notch and stopped worrying about things I can’t control. Instead, I want to get back to this idea of leading an incredibly rich (and fulfilling) life on a minimal budget.
Being frugal doesn’t mean life has to suck.
Food is one way we do that in our family. Good food brings our family together. Good food keeps us smiling, and our bellies full.
Other people notice this too — Friends who visit us remarked, “You guys eat really well!”
But the big secret isn’t that we eat expensive food…it’s that we eat well on a small budget. Our food budget is usually less than $500/month (for a family of 4).
A few years ago Mrs. Tako and I decided to stop eating-out as much. We were tired of spending tons of money on restaurants for downright mediocre meals. We wanted to save for financial independence.
Fast forward a few years, and we eat out rarely, if ever! Months can go by without us ever visiting a restaurant! In most cases when we do eat out, I end up unhappy with the quality. I can make better food at home.
The quality is better, it’s cheaper, and the amount of time it takes to prepare a great meal is nearly the same amount of time required to drive to a restaurant, wait for a table, order, pay the bill, and then drive home.
Eating a home is a win-win for anyone on the road to financial independence.
I’ll Share My Secret!
But what if your experience cooking at home doesn’t match that of a decent restaurant? What if your attempts to make great food at home turn out lousy? How do you get from “barely edible food” to “better than a restaurant”?
Well, it does take some practice, but if you’re cooking at home often, you’ll be getting that already.
There is a ‘secret’ to making great food at home! After years of replicating incredible restaurant dishes from all over the world (some of which I’ve shared on this website), I’ve come to a conclusion: culinary success is all in the sauce.
What? The Sauce?
Yes, I’m serious!
Think about it this way — Remember the last time you went to a restaurant and had a fantastic meal. What was the most powerful flavor component of the dish? Unless you were eating steak, the odds are good there was a sauce involved.
Quality ingredients are important, but a recipe’s sauce pulls it all together. It gives the recipe life.
Without sauce, that Chinese food you had last week would be tasteless cardboard.
From the dressing on a Caesar salad, to the salsa on a taco, sauce is where it’s at when it comes to delicious food!
Make Your Own Sauce
One of the biggest tips I can give to anyone is make the sauce yourself, wherever possible.
In the Tako household, we make tons of our own sauces. I’ll give you few examples — salad dressing, pizza sauce, teriyaki sauce, alfredo sauce, tsuyu sauce, salsa, gyoza sauce, and nam phrik … to name just a few.
Need a sauce recipe? Just google for one. She may not know it, but every grandmother from here to Italy has her best recipes posted online!
Obviously making some sauces is going to be nearly impossible because of the time and specialized equipment involved. Soy sauces or fish sauces are great examples of this. (There’s no way I’m fermenting anchovies in my house for months at a time!)
In those cases, leave it to the professionals. Head to your nearest Asian grocery store (or other excellent grocery store), and purchase the highest quality sauce you can reasonably afford.
One Is Not Like The Other
When buying sauces for cooking, it pays to be discerning too. Get the right sauces for your dish.
To recreate that awesome Phad Thai from your favorite Thai restaurant, you’ll need authentic Thai sauces. Cheap Chinese copies aren’t going to cut it. On the surface they may seem similar, but flavors vary from country to country, and even brand to brand.
Don’t substitute! Get the real stuff!
For best results, match the origin of the sauce with the dish’s country of origin. You’ll probably pay more for it, but you’ll thank me later.
Don’t Buy “Cheater” Sauces
Since I was a kid, grocery stores have been selling what I call “cheater” sauces. These are pre-made sauces intended to make cooking “authentic” dishes easier.
Do yourself a favor, and don’t buy them. Cheater sauces are rarely worth it. All the preservatives and fillers needed to make a sauce shelf stable also ruin the flavor. You don’t know how long that sauce has been sitting on the shelf either!
If you want the most authentic flavors, just say ‘no’ to cheater sauces!
But what if you don’t live in an area with a asian grocery store, or even a good western-style grocer?
Get what you need online! Amazon has nearly every specialty sauce you can imagine, at fairly reasonable prices. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t find those obscure ingredients to make outstanding food!
I routinely buy sauces from Amazon that are not stocked at my local stores. Like my favorite Belizean hot sauce. I’ve yet to find a store in my area that stocks it. Thank you internet!
Bigger Is Not Always Better
Grocery stores (especially in the United States) are always trying to push larger and larger containers at ‘value’ prices.
But sauces have a shelf life. Flavors are best when the bottle is first opened, and they degrade with time.
Bigger is not always better. You don’t want to buy that giant bottle of soy sauce if it’s just going to sit in your fridge for years!
Fresher flavors mean yummier food … especially if you’re buying specialty sauces for ethnic recipes. You might only make those recipes only a few times a year. In that case, it actually makes more sense to buy a smaller bottle at a higher unit price.
Want the best flavors? Keep your sauces in the fridge, and buy only what you’ll need for the next couple months.
Quality Matters — Avoid The Cheap Stuff
Lastly, something needs to be said for quality. How do we tell a good quality sauce from a bad one?
- Price is often a good indicator.
- Chemical ingredients. These ingredients are used as preservatives or used to speed production, like “Hydrolysed Vegetable Proteins”, MSG, and other preservatives and flavor enhancers.
- “Processed” ingredients. These are ingredients utilized by the manufacturer to lower costs. They are not authentic and will not provide the best flavors.
- Country of Origin that doesn’t match intended market. Typically this is done by big manufacturers to cut costs. Anyone who ships their production overseas undercuts local brands by cutting costs every way possible.
First, let’s look at a good quality fish sauce:
Now, let’s look at a not-so good quality version:
See the difference?
What I can’t show you is the difference in taste. The difference in taste is huge!
The top fish sauce is Red Boat fish sauce ($7.48). It’s one of the best. It’s processed naturally without chemical fermentation and chemical additives. I use it all the time when I make my Pho recipe. It’s the best Vietnamese fish sauce I’ve found yet.
The bottom brand is Three Crabs Brand ($3.99). It’s made in Hong Kong (synonymous for cheap sauces) but marketed as a Vietnamese fish sauce (labeled in 6 different languages). It uses processed ingredients and chemical fermentation to speed production times.
Take a guess which sauce I think is the best quality.
I hope this post inspires at least one person to cook at home more. You really can save yourself a ton of money by eating at home and skipping the overpriced restaurant scene.
With a little practice (and the right sauce), you can produce food just as good (or better than) a restaurant. Don’t be scared of ethnic recipes either…they really aren’t that hard to make! The secret is in the sauce!