It’s a Thursday morning and I’m at a community centre in East London to learn how to cook a nutritious meal for under £1. In a city where a bunch of coriander can cost 78p and Brexit has pushed up
the cost of even basic ingredients, I’m intrigued to see whether such a thrifty cooking class can actually work.
Today’s students range from teenagers in Nike tracksuits and white sport socks to pensioners. We take our seats in front of a table set up with a small portable stove and a chopping board. A teacher wearing a red striped apron welcomes everyone and the class begins.
“Today we’ll be making chili sin carne and sticky fried rice,” she says, first showing us how to sweat chopped onions on a low heat with garlic.
The teacher is Alicia Weston, a think tank researcher who set up the Bags of Tastecookery class with funding from the West Hackney Parochial Charity. The aim is to help those living on low incomes in East London eat healthily and save money. All classes are free to attend and feature a cookery demonstration, followed by a chance for students to split into smaller groups and recreate the dish themselves. At the end of the class, everyone sits down together to enjoy what they have cooked. Students are also offered a bag containing the ingredients to make four portions of the day’s recipe at home for £3.
Eating well for a quid sounds impossible but Weston hopes to show people that through bulk buying, identifying the best supermarket offers, and swapping more expensive ingredients such as red meat for chickpeas, it is possible to reduce food costs.
“Iceland sells the cheapest chopped tomatoes,” she tells us as she empties a can into the frying onions. Later on in the class, she shows us a diagram that illustrates why it’s better to buy large bottles of soy sauce, rather than lots of small ones.
As the tomato sauce for the chili sin carne begins to reduce, Weston adds paprika and cumin. Volunteer Linda, who has been assisting in the demonstration, shares some of her own advice on preventing food waste and saving money.
“You can keep onions in the freezer,” she tells the class. “I chop whole bags of them, my husband comes downstairs and I’m crying my eyes out holding a knife—he gets quite worried.”
After the demonstration, the students break into groups to try the recipe themselves. I watch volunteer Yvonne’s group make a start on the chili, with some of the teenagers fighting over who gets to slice the garlic. One student accidentally drops a plastic sandwich bag of sweet corn into the pot and watches transfixed as it sinks to the bottom. No one seems to mind.
I ask a student named Ali how he found out about Bags of Taste.
“Alicia told me about it at the Jobcentre,” he explains. “I thought, ‘Yeah I’d like to know how to cook.’ Normally I just eat plain chicken breasts with rice, it’d be nice to make proper stuff for my mum.”
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