How to stock an Indian pantry during a lockdown

Tora Agarwala

How to stock your pantry. (Source: File photo)

“Panic,” says food and travel writer, Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi, “is the last reaction you need in this situation.” The Mumbai-based Sanghvi is referring to the situation caused by the novel coronavirus, as it spreads across the world. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nation-wide lockdown as a step to curb the pandemic. Despite essential services, including grocery stores and pharmacies, being exempt, people have been rushing to markets, and resorting to "panic buying". As essential supplies fly off the shelves faster than you can say ‘Corona’, Sanghvi, a graduate of the  French Culinary Institute, New York, says that a little thought and planning is enough to set up a well-stocked pantry and tide over these troubled times.

Here are some tips on how to stock up  

Stock up on basic, nutrient-dense foods

An imperative part of the Indian diet are grains and pulses. Apart from rice and dal essentials, Sanghvi recommends keeping rajma (kidney beans) and chana (chickpeas) handy. “If nothing else, these can always be made into a chaat, as a snack,” she says. She also suggests sprouting a lot of dal. “They make for great vegetable replacements, especially now, when fresh greens might not be as easily available,” she says. The trick is to stock up on nutrient-dense food which doesn't occupy too much space but adds flavour to your food.

What are the must-have masalas?

An India kitchen cannot function without a set of basic masalas: powdered haldi (turmeric), dhaniya (coriander), jeera (cumin), mirchi (chilli) and hing (asafoetida), as well as whole mustard and whole jeera. “But given the diversity of India, every community will stock their own spices and masalas,” she says. For example, eastern Indian kitchens are likely to have the five spiced paanch phoran combination. “If you are Gujarati, a dhaniya-jeera combination would definitely feature, a South Indian kitchen would have kadhi patta (curry leaves). I am Sindhi, so I will always have aamchur (mango powder) in my dabba. Sanghvi also recommends a couple of easy masala mixes, like chana masala and tandoori masala, to keep handy for quick cooking. “You can boil chana, cut some tomatoes and add chole masala. Or, you can cut potatoes, onions, tomatoes and coat it with tandoori masala,” she says.

Choose hardy veggies, purée fruits and freeze

Fresh vegetables might not be easily accessible during the lockdown, so Sanghvi suggests opting for ‘hardy’ ones, which do not perish easily. These include, apart from onion and potatoes, arbi (taro root), beetroot, sweet potato, suran (elephant yam foot) etc. “Arbi is fantastic — it stays forever and is so versatile,” she says.

Fruits and vegetables can be puréed, frozen and stored too. Sanghvi has a number of suggestions: tomatoes can be puréed and frozen, taken out in helpings as and when required; bananas can be mashed and frozen, then had with yoghurt; apples can be stewed with jaggery, put in a jar, and had with rotis; oranges, using all the juice, flesh and skin, can be made into a quick marmalade. “I have grated and frozen a whole bunch of coconuts and put it in the freezer. With that, you can make a variety of chutneys and condiments,” she says.

“There are a whole bunch of preservation techniques human beings use for winter when produce is not easily available. Or back when we didn’t have fridges! There is a lot of learning from those times for now,” she says.

Cut the junk, fill your cabinets with ‘healthy’ snacks

“Nothing makes a cranky child happier than ‘chikki’” according to Sanghvi.

The humble Indian chikki is made out of healthy things: til chikki, kaju chikki, coconut chikki. “There is negligible amount of jaggery holding the whole thing together,” she says, adding that it can be a healthy alternative to chocolates and biscuits. “Peanuts and chana also become snacks. Yes, they are processed and salty, but you can always rinse them and dry them off,” she says. Dry-fruits are a store-house of nutrients. “Simple dry fruits which are not super expensive like dates, figs etc can be consumed in small quantities,” she says.

'Food be thy medicine, medicine be thy food'

While Sanghvi says there are a lot of canned foods (baked beans or slices of pineapple; cured meats and cold cuts) cheaply available which can help now, it is important that everything is well-cooked. “Poorly handled meat, eggs and fish is a risk. You wouldn't want to go to the hospital for a stomach bug now,” she says. She recommends eggs as a high source of protein and stocking up on cheese, too. “Definitely stock up on cheese because cheese lasts for a long time and helps make a lot of dishes fun.”

While processed food is very convenient, immunity-boosting foods are important too. “We got a kilo of ginger — it has been proven in multiple medical studies to have antiviral properties,” she says, adding that ginger and fresh turmeric are both hardy and last long. She suggests having ginger crushed fresh in a glass of warm water.

The pots and pans you really need

For many who depend on take-out, the lockdown has forced them into the uncharted territory of a kitchen. While it may seem daunting in the beginning, Sanghvi says that for basic functioning, one just needs three-four things: something flat, a tawa or skillet, to make rotis, dosas, or to reheat items; saucepans of different shapes; a couple of ladles and flippers to flip omelettes; a kettle to make tea. For many, it can be a great time to experiment. “For me, being enclosed in my apartment means one thing: cooking, experimenting with flavours I had always wondered about, cuisines I have been curious about.”