Starting out? What are the essentials?

Over the past years I have made little books of recipes for my children and their friends when they have gone off to live on their own and fend for themselves. Knowing they have a tiny budget and equally tiny kitchens, not many resources and few ideas (and limited skills), I thought I’d help them out by putting together a list of pantry items, essential utensils and some basic recipes.
Over the years, I’ve shared these with a number of people who weren’t into cooking (because they found it too daunting) but have since come to embrace the joy of cooking. Both my children are great cooks and I’m pleased to say that those friends who once didn’t even have a grater or olive oil (!!) in their kitchen are now being very experimental and preparing amazing food.
So what do you need?


  • good wooden spoon (better to buy one good spoon and throw it out after a year rather than a whole lot of cheap ones.
  •  two good knives – one small one and one large cook’s knife – you’ll need this for chopping things like pumpkin. Buy the best you can afford. Everyone has a preference for the kind of knives they like to handle. I like a really big heavy knife but it has to have the right weight/balance. I use Furi and although I have an entire set, I generally only use two of them. The others are specialist knives – for filleting fish etc. So my advice is to go and handle the knives and choose whichever one feels best in your hand. And don’t worry about price – they vary. In fact, if you’ve got a good Asian cooking shop nearby, go there as they have very good knives for usually a fraction of the price of the big name ones.
  • colander
  • slotted spoon
  • spatula
  • tongs – the ones you get in the supermarket with the rubber ends are perfect for all sorts of things from grabbing pasta, turning meat, serving salad, etc.
  • vegetable peeler
  • grater
  • flexible spatula
  • *heavy duty mortar and pestle – these are available quite inexpensively at Asian grocers and will last you a life-time.  For years I relied on one of these instead of using any food processors to mix my spice pastes.  Alternatively, buy a wand – even the cheap ones do a reasonable job and can last for years.


  • one small saucepan
  • one large sauce pan – large enough to cook your pasta – enough to serve, say four
  • a medium sized frying pan.  As you get more competent/interested you’ll want a range of pans but essentially you’ll always want one small non-stick pan, one large non-stick pan and one heavy-duty deep(ish) pan.  The best of these are cast iron and found in hospitality stores for a fraction of the cost in department stores.  I’m still using a large cast iron pan I bought over 20 years ago.
  • if you can, buy a wok.  Again, go to an Asian kitchen shop – or even just an Asian grocery store as they generally have them – and buy a standard round bottomed wok.  Oil it and put it in the oven to ‘cure’ a couple of times and then it will last you for ever.  Truly.

In my opinion, if you’re just starting out – that’s basically all you need.  Once you’re venturing into more complex dishes, then there are things that you’ll want – see here for details.


  • tin tomatoes –  the Coles brand are especially good because not only are they cheap but they don’t have anything but tomatoes and water in them (no nasty preservatives or additives)
  • chickpeas in a tin – amazing what you can do with chickpeas (ditto re Coles brand)
  • anchovies
  • stock cubes – beef and chicken
  • olive oil
  • rice bran or other vegetable/peanut oil for cooking (sometimes you want an oil that doesn’t burn as high as olive oil or have so much flavour – particular in asian cooking)
  • salt, pepper
  • cumin – this is a great spice which will see you through a huge range of recipes
  • chillies – fresh and ground
  • coconut milk
  • sugar
  • fish sauce
  • soy sauce
  • sesame oil
  • mirin
  • rice vinegar
  • balsamic vinegar – if you don’t want to use a range of vinegars, then this is one that will do for just about anything.

And now to recipes. Click here for a selection of easy recipes that can be made both cheaply and quickly with limited equipment.  I’m not one for exact measurements but rather its a “go by feel” attitude, which after a few times, you’ll understand.  By then you’ll be able to adapt and make things up on the fly.

*this is an ideal item but if you’re just starting out  and are in temporary digs, don’t bother with it.  There are other ways of making do.