I could sing the song of my delivery favorites like Maria singing the “Do Re Mi” song in The Sound of Music: “Thai, pad Thai, with chicken please. Mapo tofu with some porrrrk. Enchiladas, in creamy cheese. Indian paneer kormaaa! Saaa-bich from Israeeel. Bánnnh mì from Vietnamm!”
I could fill the entire octave, but I’ll spare you. Suffice to say it all comes back to the fact that in a city, you can douse yourself in takeout whenever you like. And although I love supporting the various cultures that make my home, New York City, such a glorious place, there’s also a supreme joy in learning how to cook a variety of cuisines at home.
Anyone can roast a chicken, but if you can master a few dishes from eclectic cultures, you’re unlikely to become bored with your meals. Takeout is literally a mixed bag: You end up with plastic silverware, napkins, plastic and paper bags, and sometimes little plastic containers. It’s a veritable non-nesting Russian doll of environmentally-unfriendly elements.
Then there’s the health issue. When you cook, you can pick your preferred fat, or reduce the salt you add to a dish. But no one’s looking over the shoulder of a restaurant chef. Her motive, no matter the cuisine she’s cooking, is to make your dinner taste good. If that means adding a few spoonfuls of lard—a fine food when it’s all-natural, and in moderation—there’s no reason she wouldn’t.
Then there are the economics of the thing. I like to support small businesses, but the $45 Indian delivery-for-two thing gets old, and it’s tough on my bank account. So I’ve been working on my own renditions of all my favorite takeout dishes. (For starter inspiration, go here.)
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Some will suggest it’s as simple as stocking the pantry with the right ingredients, but that’s only partly true. It takes practice to get where you want to be, which is using whatever protein or leftover knobs of produce you have to make a meal. Getting the right spices might require trips to specialty markets, and you’ll also need the right fresh ingredients. For Chinese food, for example, you’ll almost always need garlic and ginger in addition to soy sauce. For Mexican, Thai, and Indian dishes, you’ll often want cilantro in the fridge.
Happily enough, now that you can make Indian butter chicken in a pressure cooker, time isn’t always as much of an issue as clever advance shopping. But there’s got to be a recipe that pushes you over the edge of not wanting to Seamless your supper (which is admittedly sometimes very necessary).
For me, it was Melissa Clark’s Thai-inspired red curry with tofu and snow peas. I found every ingredient—canned coconut milk and jarred red curry paste—at the grocery store, and I could make it in half an hour on a weeknight. The curry reheats beautifully the next day for lunch, and it’s pretty good for you.
Once I’d mastered Clark’s dish, I started riffing on it. I’d swap out red curry paste for curry powder, or for vadouvan. I’d add leftover fried eggplant for snow peas. You could easily swap in cooked squash, raw kale, or anything else that makes sense to your palate. One of my favorite variations, for a peanut-coconut tofu curry, is here.
Best of all, I began to always have the right ingredients on hand so I could move fast when I was hungry. I learned that coconut milk and canned tomatoes are marvelous with sautéed shallots, garlic and chiles—a fantastic sauce that goes with almost any protein.
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Here’s my unofficial list of some of the staples I reach for most often when recreating my go-to takeout dishes.
Indian: ginger, butter, garlic, onions, cumin (ground), cumin (seeds), cilantro, chili powder, scallions, turmeric, garam masala, jarred whole tomatoes, coconut milk fresh chiles, curry powder, coriander, vadouvan
Mexican: garlic, onions, scallions, cilantro, cumin, coriander, oregano, chili flakes, jalapeño and poblano chiles, cinnamon, cayenne, chipotle chiles en adobo, dried ancho chiles, jarred whole tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, apricots and raisins (for molés)
Chinese: garlic, shallots, scallions, onions, ginger, cilantro leaves, light and dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, black vinegar, Shaoxing wine, fish sauce, fresh and dried chiles (such as Szechuan), chili oil, sambal oelek (chili sauce)
Thai: garlic, shallots, scallions, onions, ginger, scallions, cilantro leaves and stems, fish sauce, lemongrass, shrimp paste, dried shrimp, coconut cream, galangal, ground dried Thai chiles, fresh Thai chiles, peanuts, sambal oelek (chili sauce)
Keep in mind that this is a starter list, that you can pick up a couple things at a time, and that you’ll tweak your own lists based on what cuisines you find yourself gravitating towards. Just know that, whatever you cook, you’ll be the envy of your colleagues at the lunch table tomorrow.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.