15 Cheap Staple Dishes From Around the World

by Max Wong on 16 May 2014 1 comment

For a lot of Americans, the term staple food conjures up images of starchy beans, dried milk, and flavorless breakfast cereal. Staple foods are the diet of poverty.

But you don't need to think of them that way. Here are some ultra-frugal, delicious recipes using inexpensive ingredients from around the world.. (See also: 25 Clever Ways to Dress Up Cheap Food)

1. Akoori

(Parsi-style Scrambled Eggs)

The Parsis are members of one of the Zoroastrian communities in India. They are also the Masters of Brunch, as proven by akoori, their heavily spiced and excruciatingly yummy scrambled egg dish. Like omlettes, akoori can turn eggs into a less-expensive alternative to meat or fish as a main dish for lunch or dinner. The most basic recipes for akoori include onions, garlic, and cilantro, so this is a great recipe to use up leftover salsa or salsa ingredients.

2. Alloco

Alloco, a snack food made from fried plantains, is sold throughout the Ivory Coast. Although alloco is also a popular dish in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Senegal, it's so popular in the Ivory Coast's largest city Abidjan, that its street-food centric Cocody neighborhood has been nicknamed "Allocodrome."

Alloco is traditionally fried in palm oil, that heart attack-inducing fat that gives movie theater popcorn its signature flavor, but any other oil will do. In the Ivory Coast, the fried plantains are topped with everything from chili peppers to onions to fried egg to tomato sauce, and served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

It should be noted, however, that unlike tostones, the Puerto Rican dish that uses green plantains, Alloco is best made with really ripe plantains. Wait for the peel to get completely black to ensure the sweetest flavor.

Since plantains are also a staple food throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America, Oceania, and South East Asia, look for them in Latin or Asian markets.

3. Arroz a Banda

Paella is a rice dish that originated in Valencia, Spain and is the dish that most non-Spaniards associate with the country. Although 18th century paella recipes called for water vole, a type of rodent, as one of the main ingredients, over time paella has become a pricey dish with the addition of expensive ingredients like saffron, duck, and shrimp. Penny-pinching Spanish cooks substitute garden snails as the main protein in homemade paella to bring the cost of ingredients down, but paella is still kind of a pain to cook, which is why it’s often the most expensive menu item at seafood restaurants.

Arroz a banda is a staple rice dish of Spanish fishermen from Alicante to Murcia. With its crunchy crust and intense fishy flavor, arroz a banda is paella's scrappy, country cousin. Arroz a banda literally means “rice apart” in Catalan, and the dish was developed by frugal fisherman to squeeze a second dish out of their catch of the day.

Most traditional arroz a banda recipes start with boiling a fish (or fish parts) in water with spices to make a broth. Once the broth is made, the fish is removed and set aside as the main course. Rice and vegetables are then added to the fish broth and cooked down to make arroz a banda. Since yummy fish broth can be made from cheap fish or from fish heads, fish bones, and shrimp shells, arroz a banda falls into the budget category even with the addition of saffron. If you have a fish market nearby, negotiate a cheap price with your local fishmonger for the heads and bones. If I call in advance, the fish guy at my grocery store will save the day’s bones for me, for free.

4. Bobotie

Bobotie (pronounced ba-boor-tea) is the national dish of South Africa. Similar to Greek moussaka, bobotie is a curried meat casserole topped with a baked cream sauce. Although it can contain some high-ticket grocery items like dried fruit or nuts, South Africans have as many recipes for bobotie as Minnesotans have for hotdish. (Be sure to read through the comments on the linked bobotie recipe, for alternate versions of this classic dish).

5. Bulani

My Afghan-American Agricultural Inspector compares his homeland's vegetable-filled turnovers to tamales: They are often communally prepared holiday treats. Although they are hand-labor intensive, bulani recipes elevate inexpensive ingredients like onions, potatoes, and pumpkin (use up that Halloween jack-o-lantern), so the kitchen prep is worth it. Bulani are extra delicious when served with fresh yogurt and chatni sauce, a spicy pesto.

6. Cholent

I always wondered why every Crock-Pot cookbook contains a recipe for bean stew, because what's so hard about making that on the stove top? While researching this article I discovered the reason why: Cholent, the traditional bean stew enjoyed by Jews on four continents as their Sabbath lunch, is the very reason for the Crock-Pot's existence.

No. Really. That's not hyperbole. The Crock-Pot was invented for Cholent.

Irving Naxon, an American inventor, was inspired by his mother's story of growing up Jewish in Lithuania. Every Friday, the Jewish ladies in her town would bring a crock of stew to the local bakery. Since observant Jews do not do any work during Sabbath, which includes turning on the stove, it's hard for them to get a hot lunch on the table on Saturdays. So instead of cooking at home, the Jewish ladies would put their pots of Cholent into the still hot coals of the village bakery's oven, and the residual heat would be enough to slow-cook the meals over the next 24 hours. Naxon wondered if there was a way to electrify a crock so Jewish moms, without access to a wood-fired bread oven, could have a similar, slow-cook, (no)work-around. Thus, the Crock-Pot was born.

7. Colcannon

How many staple foods have their own song? Colcannon, the traditional Irish dish made from mashed potatoes and kale, used to be a year-round staple, but is now a dish associated with Halloween (in part because that's the height of kale and cabbage season in Ireland).

Like King Cake on Epiphany, colcannon on Halloween doubles as a fortune-telling device. On Halloween, a ring, a button, a thimble, and a coin are hidden in the Colcannon. The person who finds the ring will be the next to marry, while the button and the thimble mean bachelorhood or spinsterhood for the next year. The coin means that the finder will come into wealth. Please note: all four charms are all potential tooth-breaking and choking hazards, so add them at your own risk.

A related potato and cabbage budget dish is Boerenkool Stamppot, a traditional Dutch recipe made from kale and potatoes, that is served with brown gravy and applesauce.

8. Ful Medames

Ful Medames is the national dish of Egypt. Although this fava bean salad with lemon garlic dressing is traditionally a breakfast food in the Middle East, Egyptians eat it at all hours of the day. I like to mash the cooked beans with a fork and then spread the chunky paste on pita bread to stretch my food budget even further.

9. Huitlacoche

The Aztecs named the gray and black fungus that grows on corn huitlacoche, which literally translates to "raven's poop." American farmers have an equally sexy name for it: corn smut. In the United States, corn smut is a horrific plant blight. But to Mexicans, Hopi Indians, and James Beard (who tried unsuccessfully tried to rename it corn truffle), huitlacoche is a delicacy.

Huitlacoche has a complex, smoky flavor and, like truffles and garlic, it's one of those ingredients that make everything taste so much better. Since non-Mexican chefs have finally discovered what the Aztecs called "The Food of the Gods" 700 years ago, corn smut is now grown commercially as swanky, gourmet produce.

Obviously, the cheapest way to procure huitlacoche is to harvest it for free from a local corn grower who thinks it's disgusting, or salvage it from your own garden. For everyone else, it's not quite as frugal, but Goya sells a decent canned version for about $8.00.

Huitlacoche is my favorite quesadilla topping. But, when I am lucky enough to find it fresh, I make Nanha (which is what the Hopis call corn smut) by parboiling it for ten minutes and then sauteing it in butter until crisp.

10. Kimchi Fried Rice

I love sour pickles, so it wasn't until a Korean friend pointed out that my Kimchi had gone sour that I realized that it was even possible to over-ferment something. But come on, some pickled vegetables don't get really good until they start getting fizzy, am I right?

Fortunately, over-fermented kimchi is the magic ingredient in Kimchi Fried Rice, one of those great dishes made from leftovers. The preparation is simple: chop the kimchi into coleslaw-sized bits, then saute in butter. Once the kimchi is cooked to your liking, add the cooked rice. You can also add spices and a fried egg at your discretion.

11. Koshary

Koshary, also spelled Koshari, Kushari, and Kosheri, is the quintessential Egyptian dish made from a carb-tastic blend of rice and not one, but two types of pasta; and topped with beans, fried onions, and tomato sauce. It's wildly popular; there are hundreds of roadside stands and restaurants that specialize in the dish found throughout the country. Koshary is Egypt's version of Cincinnati Chili or Thursday Night Soup. It's a flexible recipe that working class Egyptian families use to stretch pantry odds and ends into one last, tasty meal before payday.

Cook's Note: Traditionally, the vinegar marinade for the chickpeas is also used as a condiment for the finished dish. (Think of it as the Egyptian-style Tabasco Sauce).

12. Locrio de Pica-Pica

I've never actually seen anyone buy this product at my grocery store, but there's an entire shelf of canned sardines in tomato sauce, so there must be a market for it. Okay, to be honest, I've bought sardines in tomato sauce in the past, but only use it to bait traps to capture feral cats in need of fixing. (It's cheaper than cat food!)

Recently, a large can of Sardines in Salsa Roja mysteriously showed up in my kitchen. No one is fessing up to leaving it behind. Since I had no cats to capture, I decided that I would, once and for all, find a recipe that would make this canned fish suitable for consumption by me.

Oh my gosh! This Dominican recipe for Rice and Spicy Sardines is delicious. I just had to add a little Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce before serving because my abandoned sardines were packed in a mild tomato paste.

13. Loco Moco

Loco Moco is Hawaii's answer to soul food. The basic recipe is simple: top hot white rice with a hamburger patty and a sunny-side up egg, liberally coating everything with brown gravy. It's pure, fatty, gut-busting deliciousness. And, naturally, since this recipe was developed by people whose ancestors rowed wooden boats all over the South Pacific, the proper portion of Loco Moco is never less than gigantic.

14. Palt

If you've ever felt bad about throwing out an old potato, now you've got a traditional Swedish recipe for all your old potato needs. Palt is a pork-filled dumpling made from mealy (not fresh) potatoes, barley, and wheat flour. The linked recipe comes complete with an instructional video of an actual Swedish grandma molding the palm-sized dumplings by hand.

15. Panzanella

My Italian friends get mad at me when I refer to panzanella as "Lazy Bruscetta." But that's what it is too me, all the flavor of tomatoes, basil, and cheese on bread, without having to actually make hors d'oeuvres. Although most American recipes for bread salad call for fresh French bread, the thrifty Italians make panzanella when they need to use up day-old bread.

Does cooking outside of your food culture raise or lower your grocery bill? What is your favorite staple dish? Please share links to your favorite recipes in the comments section to help out your fellow Wise Bread foodies!

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photos would've been great, processing requirements and all