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 Taste cookery 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.”
Weston tells me about recruiting students at Jobcentres: “I use a massive sign. It’s designed to look like those menus kebab shops nail up—that gets a lot of the men in.”
As well as those looking for employment, the classes attract people who suffer with social isolation or mental health issues—and ones who simply want to develop new culinary skills. Speaking with the students, I find out that many are regulars at food banks and practically everyone struggles with the burden of benefit cuts.
Weston explains that some of the recipes she demonstrates in Bags of Taste classes are healthy takes on popular takeaway dishes, such as chicken tacos and lamb kofta.
“If you walk into a takeaway and see Singapore noodles and you think, ‘I know how to make those and they’ll taste better,’ you won’t spend £5 on them,” she says. “It’s about integrity, especially when you’re mentally downtrodden, you need to feel like you can be good at something again.”
Linda used to be a Bags of Taste student, but found the classes to be so useful that she stayed with the non-profit and decided to become a volunteer.
“I was acting as a carer for someone in my congregation,” she tells me. “By following the recipes, I lost 11 stone. I used to eat Weight Watchers ready meals but if you look on the back they’ve got so much salt in them.”
Linda’s not alone. Healthy eating can difficult if you lack the knowledge and the financial resources. A deep pan pepperoni pizza is £1 at Iceland, which costs less than a packet of green beans. Equally, eating healthily doesn’t have to be the preserve of those who can afford organic flaxseeds. According to Weston, evaluations have shown that students who follow Bags of Taste recipes and grocery shopping advice can save 25 percent on their food bills (around £1,400 a year), as well as seeing improvements in their health.
On the other side of the room from Yvonne and her students, volunteer Sheri’s group is moving at a slightly slower pace. Seventy-three-year-old Peter struggles to match Weston’s quick-pace onion chopping method, so Sheri shows him how to pull away the onions’ course brown exterior using a knife.
Weston tells me that the classes often produce strong social bonds between students and volunteers.
“I was selling this pan for £6 and I asked who wanted it and this boy's hand went straight up,” she remembers. “But he didn’t have any money so he couldn’t get it, then this older Caribbean lady bought it for him. She mothered him the whole course. It was sweet because she’s about 65, her kids had left home, and he was quite a state. He’d had a hard life and those two stuck together.”
These kind of interactions are especially important in Hackney, an area of the city that has seen rapid gentrification and subsequent rent increases drive existing communities out of their homes.
“You might need to call on people to get that slosh of milk or a can of beans. It helps knowing someone down the road who can help out,” student George points out.
Chili sin carne finished and the hearty smell of warm stew infusing the room, everyone sits down to eat. Even though I haven’t really helped with any of the cooking, the students and volunteers are all desperate to feed me.
“Are you on a diet or something?” asks one student named Daniel, before he piles a steaming portion of chili onto my plate. “She’s not got any rice,” says another.
The meal is delicious. The hot chili is flavoursome and filling, helped by its topping of stringy melted cheese. The students seem rightfully proud of their morning's work. One named Doreen scrapes her leftovers into a Tupperware container to give to her son and exclaims: “This is much better than a Chinese.”
After the class disperses, full and happy, and Doreen finishes showing me old polaroids of her with two pink-washed poodles, I help Weston load the equipment and leftover ingredients into a cab.
“I remember hearing this guy from Glasgow,” she recalls, before we say our goodbyes. “He said, ‘I don’t eat all that salad shit’ and I thought, ‘That’s exactly it.’ People who live in Glasgow who eat fish and chips do not eat all that salad shit, and if you try to get them to eat the salad shit, nothing will change.”
You can find out more about Bags of Taste, including volunteer opportunities, on their website.