Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
Jul 7, 2011 03:48 PM

Which cuisine is the most frugal in which to cook/eat by?

Apropos the 'Rising food costs' in these tough economic times thread, I'm always trying to figure out which World cuisine is the least expensive in which to cook but deliveres the best 'bang for the buck' in terms of flaver, a few thoughts:

CHINESE- I would think this would be the first choice, but authentic Chinese cooking involves costly things such as: preserved mustard greens/szechuan pickles, Shaoxing wine, jarred bean sauces/pastes, wolfberries/lotus seeds and various dried fungusy/ fishy things (lily flower/cloud ear/silverfish.etc.). So I'm on the fence with this one.

INDIAN- This would seem another logical choice as the cuisine is mainly legumes, rice, flour and vegetables, but it does involve the use of A LOT of spices/seasonings, and those can be kind of costly such as cardamom, real cinnamon and saffron. Also quality Basmati rice will take a pretty good hit on your wallet. Nonetheless, even with all that I would still rank it #2 in the most frugal cuisine department.

ITALIAN- Italian food is unthinkable without ingredients such as quality olive oils, pancetta/prosciutto, veal, reggiano parm./pecorino, balsamic vinegars, olives, salted capers, and anchovies, among others; and those are costly and their absence would be noted and would make for a rather poor Italian meal.

MEXICAN- I think this is probably the #1 choice, as you can feed a family with only a chicken, beans, tortillas and about 8 vegetable types, some dairy products and a minimum of seasonings. This type of cooking 'fortunately' lacks really expensive 'essentials' (Tequila excepted!) and seems to be mainly an inexpensive and tasty manipulation of around a dozen or so main ingredients.

GREEK/LEBANESE/ NEAR EASTERN- I know there are differences in these particulat cuisines, but they are similar in their use of legumes, breads, spices, vegetables (eggplant) rice and LAMB!! (and pork in Greece). I put this one at #3.

SOUTHEAST ASIAN- Same as with Chinese.

FRENCH- Out of the question as the heavy use of dairy and expensive meats make it not terribly frugal, IMO.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Since there are people in extreme poverty everywhere in the world, it would seem it could be done eating any cuisine---the biggest cost difference would pivot on protein. Poor people don't eat much meat but use it as a flavoring or for special occasions. I find it interesting that you focus on the expensive ingredients within each cuisine rather than the basic. To say that Chinese cuisine is expensive just makes me chuckle when you consider the many millions of Chinese who live on very, very little. As to your view of Mexican cuisine, I'm going to assume you are not that familiar with it or you couldn't say it was so simple.

    1 Reply
    1. re: escondido123

      I would amend that to say, if one focuses on the methods rather than the ingredients per se, any region's food can be done on the cheap. make what you can (there are more than a few pricey things on that list that with patience aren't difficult) grow what you can, substitute what you can and the sky's your oyster (I'm trying to think of a better mixed metaphor, but that works for now).

    2. buy basmati at costco, costs well under a dollar a pound.
      Mexican, when I make it, requires cilantro, which is expensive.
      Chinese can be made with a jug of sherry (nothing to do about the pastes,sadly)

      But me? I'd say poor cooking! Bread, bread tons of bread, meat on fest days only, and as much collards as you can stomach.

      (in china, it's gailan and rice. same diff).

      8 Replies
      1. re: Chowrin

        "Mexican......requires cilantro, which is expensive"


        1. re: Sam Salmon

          I can get 2-3 bunches of cilantro for a buck at the Mexican produce market near my house. I drive my wife crazy because I always overpurchase cilantro when I go there.

          1. re: Sam Salmon

            $2 a bunch. I use $100 to feed two people for a month, and without eating out. Really takes a bite out of the budget.

            1. re: Sam Salmon

              I was going to post exactly what Chowrin posted re: Mexican because (as in any cuisine) the answer to the question is relative to what's available. Where I live, when you go to the local Whole Foods and ask them where the tortillas are they point you in the direction of sprouted wraps. They really are in the freezer section and they are more expensive than the ones on the West Coast in the sense that you get very few in a package. But I digress, Cilantro?, very expensive relatively speaking and you can't really grow it in South Florida. Believe me I have tried too many times. I like to load my tostadas and tacos (stem and all) with cilantro. If you're lucky you can find beautiful, organic CA grown at whole foods that just arrived, but a lot of the the times it's wilted when you need it most. Now Cuban oregano? Avocados (the "slimcado" :)? Starfruit? Mango? No problem here- cheapest thing there is if you grow it. I'm glad I love beans and rice because that's pretty cheap for me (got some cooking right now). I used up the last of my cilantro this morning though...

              1. re: crowmuncher

                LOL! Shopping at Whole Foods on a tight food budger? Time for a reality check! As for cilantro, got a flower pot and a widnow sill? Grow some! Couldn't be cheaper.

                1. re: Caroline1

                  I don't know where you live, but I do know from several years experience that cilantro doesn't grow very robustly in the upper midwest. Same with hot chiles about half the summers. You'd need to plant at least a dozen cilantro plants here to keep up with routine culinary use, and then that would only be for the summer months. Alas.

                  1. re: Bada Bing

                    Oooops. Sorry. I live in Texas. I keep forgetting you can't grow oranges outside in Alaska. What about those "Grow Light" garden-in-a-dish thingies? But come to think of it, I haven't seen an ad for one of those in a while. And dried cilantro sucks. Sorry!

                    1. re: Bada Bing

                      Tried cilantro in the AeroGarden. over and over . Didn't work for me. Now I just buy a batch of organic cilantro, chop it and freeze it with water in an ice cube tray. But it sure ain't fresh!

            2. Going by your standards of authentic ingredients, it's none of the above. In order to have authentic Mexican, you'd have to find organic, free-range chicken, organic beans and so on.

              The cheapest, in theory, is the one that uses little animal protein, high grains and traditionally cheap produce (as in, fresh ones aren't used).

              On second thought... Any type of cuisine/dish that originated out of necessity fits the bill. These would be foods that originated from days of peasantry and slavery, where only the cheap things were available. Sure, some things that were cheap then may be expensive now, but overall it should work.

              2 Replies
              1. re: ediblover

                'These would be foods that originated from days of peasantry and slavery, where only the cheap things were available'

                Thanks! I forgot about the cooking of the American South. It's definately a contender for tthe most frugal. With mainly beans, rice, corn, inexpensive cuts of meat, greens and a few others, Southerners created a pretty tasting cuisine that doesn't take a big chunk out of your wallet.

                1. re: arktos

                  why, oh dear departed gods, why, won't my costco carry cornmeal??

              2. Peasant food.

                Lol, I know it's not a nationality of food, but it is a subset of most cuisines :D

                As to nationality though, that is sooooooooo going to depend on where you live. For instance here in CA, Mexican food/ingredients are probably the cheapest. Cilantro here is really cheap too (unlike the case with Chowrin).

                3 Replies
                1. re: Popkin

                  *jealous* just for that, i'm hoarding the sour cherries! and the wild blueberries!

                  1. re: Popkin

                    I was going to say "stew" or the local equivalent. Sauce, with a little meat (and it's a case where cheaper is often better, because it's designed for tough cuts of meat) and some veggies that can be stretched as needed with the local starch, be it rice, bread, potatoes or something else.

                    1. re: Popkin

                      Porridge thot here - from the Ken Follet books. It was on everyone's menu.

                    2. An important clarification: Do you mean most frugal where *you* live or where the cuisines originated? It's a huge difference. You are evaluating cost from the first, not the second, perspective, it would seem.

                      And "French" covers both haute cuisine and domestic, peasant cuisine; the latter was immensely frugal, traditionally.

                      Also, in terms of frugality, consider the issue of fuel: Chinese home and street cooking is often based on an almost maniacal frugality with fuel, for example.

                      Finally, one needs to remember that Westerners tend to evaluate cuisines at the level of the feast or "sabbath" meals, rather than much more meagre everyday meals. Most people, for most of history, have had most of their meals (when they had meals) comprised of a staple starch and a few condiments.

                      For examples:

                      The Irish: potatoes (many pounds a day) and buttermilk (during the dairy season)
                      England: Pease porridge and a suck of salt pork
                      Continental Europe: a cereal porridge (rye, barley, wheat or, later, maize) or soup based on re-hydrating stale bread
                      Africa: millet and other grains and peas
                      West Asia: wheat and barley
                      South Asia: wheat and rice and lentils
                      East Asia: rice, millet and wheat.
                      Americas: maize in all of its splendor.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: Karl S

                        'Do you mean most frugal where *you* live or where the cuisines originated?'

                        Don't fully understand the question, but I would probably answer 'where I live', and what I have access to interms of foodstuffs, their prices, etc.

                        1. re: arktos

                          That's then going to be a much more difficult question to answer.

                          (Distinctive ingredients will tend to be cheapest where they are closest to the source and where they are most in demand (as supply will tend to rise to meet the demand).)

                          Where do you live?

                          1. re: Karl S

                            Within two blocks from where I am, there are 2 Indian/Pakistani food stores, 2 MiddleEastern ones, and 2 Mexican, with a large Asian food mall 2 miles away, and a 'ChinaKorea town' 4 miles away. Rather well-situated if I do say!!

                            1. re: arktos

                              But.... do they have fresh produce? and when? Some huge supermarket-type stores in Fairfax, VA have all of these types of stores 'with' produce. Smaller towns do not. Recently a small town nearby started carrying produce in their ethnic store -- however no Indian or MiddleEastern stock of 'dried/boxed' foods for their ethnic ancillary products.