What’s your ingredient of the year? An ingredient you ate for the first time, rediscovered, cooked a lot over the year, or learnt about this year?
Incredibly, I never heard the same answer twice. If anyone is curious, mine is tamarind. I tried to mix up my use of acid this year (there’s more than just lemon and vinegar, I kept telling myself) and tamarind was what I landed on.
This is what everyone said.
Nagesh Seethiah: yoghurt
It’s been around my whole life – I really haven’t given it enough credit. My mum uses yoghurt as the base marinade in her biryani, and my favourite drink growing up in Mauritius was almond dahi, a lassi-style drinking yoghurt. Yoplait should make this available around the world, especially in Melbourne during summer.
This year I’ve taken to making yoghurt weekly with Schulz Organic Dairy full cream milk, the most incredible, rich milk we can find. Our yoghurt culture has developed over the past few months into a fabulous being, with a beautiful subtle acidity and richness.
Our yoghurt now contributes to a lot at our restaurant: cheeky breakfasts during prep mornings; the base for our kalia sauce, mixed with fresh herbs and masala; while the whey is used to season other dishes or kickstart ferments with a unique lactic note.
John Susman: coral trout
The collapse of the Chinese market for live coral trout has resulted in the domestic Australian market having unprecedented access to this truly delicious fish. Most of the coral trout fleet in north Queensland have built quality standards of catching and handling, commensurate with the demands of the live trade, and while most of the domestic demand is for dead fish, the quality is outstandingly good.
Khanh Nguyen: gochugaru
My ingredient of year the has to be Korean chilli flakes, also known as gochugaru. The flakes are traditionally made from sun-dried chilli without the seeds. It’s quite mild in terms of heat, with a slightly sweet, fruity and smokey flavour. The flakes have a noticeably vibrant, red colour to them. We season our dishes with it and also make a chilli oil, which turns deeply red.
Nathan Lyons: chicken thighs
It has to be chicken. Such a versatile meat: bake it, fry it, stir-fry it. It absorbs flavour, it’s one of my favourite ingredients to work with. I use the thighs in curries. I’m a curry enthusiast and there’s a lot of varieties of curry – Thai, Japanese, Australian made with Keen’s – I make.
The thighs have more flavour than the breast, they’re fattier and they cook better in curry sauce. The breasts can be good for baking and stir-frying, but chicken thighs are in a league of their own when it comes to curry.
Yvonne C Lam: Knorr liquid seasoning
“A few drops of Knorr liquid seasoning will complete your dishes with extra richness” – so goes the typeset promise on the sauce bottle. And what a promise. Drizzle it on hot white rice, dot it on just-cracked eggs while they’re sizzling in the pan, and – the ultimate “mod Oz” culinary litmus test – it works wonders with avo on toast.
The condiment takes prime place in the hallowed halls of savoury brown-coloured foodstuffs, the likes of which includes soy sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce; the crusty bits of a steak; the glorious thickness of a good masoor dal. It helps too that the bottle comes in two novelty sizes – a petite 205ml for picnics and novices, and a gigantor 835ml for those who are serious about enveloping their world in raindrops of this savoury saviour.
Adam James: hakurei
Hakurei are a most delicious variety of Japanese turnip. They are white, around the size of a golf ball and have the most delectable crunch. I love to quarter them and throw them in a wok or wood-fired oven with good olive oil. Both the root and leaves are edible. With the leaves I often make “gundruk” – a Nepalese ferment where you lacto-ferment for a week or two, then sun-dry until they resemble tea leaves. They’re great sprinkled on salads.
My favourite application for the roots is in a “perennial pickle bed” where they’re pureed with turmeric and garlic. This becomes rich in lactobacillus and, in time, you can simply submerge whole vegetables (in the paste) only to pluck them out weeks or months later when they’ve transformed into delicious, crunchy and acidic pickles.
Rosheen Kaul: fermented tofu
This is a lovely, soft tofu preserved in salt and rice wine, then stored in either oil or vinegar. I personally love the version stored in Sichuan chilli oil, similar to miso in its delicious texture and saltiness. It’s used in braises, marinades, and I love it as a creamy, umami punch in sauces, or sneaking a little spoon straight from the bottle.
Paul van Reyk: mushrooms
My first taste of mushroom in Australia were grey-brown slimy slices, in a grey-brown gravy tipped on to toast. Colour and texture notwithstanding, I was hooked on the earthy flavour.
I’ve progressed since then, and these lockdown years I’ve been comforted by Japanese varieties – shiitake, enoki, cloud ear fungus and shimeji – added to a bowl of two-year fermented brown rice miso soup, umami-ed to the max.
Fides Santos-Arguelles: calamansi lime
These fruit are undervalued in their abundance in the Philippines, but so revered in their scarcity by the Filipino diaspora. Like Philippine cuisine, calamansi is relatively unknown, and not commercially available at scale, yet. But if the success of yuzu is anything to go by, there’s hope. For now, you will find calamansi trees in backyards of Filipino households or, very rarely, at Asian grocers.
Fides Santos-Arguelles is the cofounder of Entree.Pinays, an organisation on a mission to promote Philippine culture and cuisine
Lina Jebeile: za’atar
I keep this beautiful spice and herb condiment within arm’s reach of my stovetop, I use it so often in my cooking. From za’atar man’ooshe (a flatbread with a za’atar and olive oil spread all over before baking), to a rub for roast chicken, or sprinkling it on hummus, labneh, eggs or avo on toast, I just love it.
Beyond the spice mix, I can’t go without mentioning fresh za’atar. I’ve been on a mission this year to get people familiar with this herb, that’s often confused with oregano. They do look similar and are from the same family but za’atar has a distinct smell and flavour. It is this herb, dried, that is the main ingredient in the mix.
I now have a large pot growing in my garden which I often use to make a traditional za’atar salad – which is simply the fresh leaves, sliced red onion and an olive oil, lemon juice and sumac dressing.
Radha La Bia: besan flour
This year I’ve rediscovered a simple ingredient: besan flour. Also known as chickpea flour, it’s used a lot in Indian cooking to make pakoras, bhajis and dosas. I’ve been using chickpea flour, in my attempt to avoid gluten, and have found it to add crispness far better than wheat flour. I’ve also started adding it to my banana breads and cookie doughs, for that extra flakiness.
My favourite thing to make with it is celeriac fritters: a bit of carom seeds, thinly sliced curry leaves, salt, pepper and a little bit of water to bind it all; then shallow-fry them and serve with a ginger-tamarind pickle. Delicious.
Kevin Cheng: cornstarch
How do Hong Kong and Chinese restaurants achieve that silky egg (wat dan) texture? And why is the protein in your takeaway Chinese always so tender and velvety? And how can deep-fried tofu be so crispy? Cornstarch – or cornflour – is one of the MVPs of Chinese cooking.
To call it a shortcut would be an insult to its ingenuity. I’ll never be able to recreate those classic dishes such as wat dan hor (rice noodles in silky egg gravy), or to perfectly marinate cheap cuts of beef in my beef and broccoli dish so that it tastes like a pricey cut. But cornstarch has been a revelation, taking my lockdown cooking damn close to the real thing. That’s the beauty of using such an ingredient, and the elegance and cleverness in Chinese cooking.
Kevin Cheng is a journalist and cofounder of non-profit group Soul of Chinatown
Gunjan Aylawadi: black chickpeas
Living in Australia, I’d almost forgotten how we added protein and iron in our mostly plant-based diets back home. As much as I love my tofu and mushrooms, the idea of them, meal after meal, gets a bit depressing. Black chickpeas have saved the day multiple times a week for me, I cook them once and the batch keeps on giving.
High in protein and fibre, they’re a magic ingredient to add to salads and wraps. I use the cooking water (black aquafaba) as stock for dals and rice, and one sip of this iron-rich liquid gold takes me back home to where my mother used to squeeze a lime into a cup of hot, salty aquafaba for a quick soup before dinner.
Hisham Al-Bakri: kantan (torch ginger)
This herbaceous flower is an ingredient we use in Malaysia a lot. Native to Malaysia and Indonesia, you’d find it in the forest where it grows really tall. It’s bright pink. It looks almost like a Waratah.
We only use the bud – it’s very aromatic. I use it in kantan spiced chicken, where I slice the flower very thinly, mix it with other aromatics and stir-fry it, then I coat deep-fried chicken in the sauce. It’s got a piquant flavour; it’s a bit peppery.
It’s my ingredient of the year because not many people know it, but whenever I describe it, my customers fall in love with it.
Kym Masters: yuzu
Usually I’d pick cheese – it’s the ingredient of the year every year, isn’t it? But my secondary ingredient is yuzu. We’ve now got some great growers in Australia, and it’s becoming much more accessible and used in more and more interesting ways.
I had a delicious kingfish ceviche at the beginning of the year which had a yuzu dressing, at Maxwell Wine. You see some sake and gins that have got yuzu, and I’ve also had a yuzu cheesecake that was off the charts.
I use it to make citrus dressings at home. I balance it with lemon, because it’s such a strong flavour.
Juan Carlo: maiz (corn)
We opened our restaurant this year and we’re trying to showcase Mexican food, so my ingredient is a fairly obvious one – corn. It’s such a foundational ingredient. We use a heap of corn: local Australian sweet corn and heirloom varieties we have to import from America. In Mexico, we have so many varieties that are all used for different purposes, some just for soup, some fresh, some for making tortillas, some for popcorn.
I would love to see some heirloom varieties grown in Australia. Having conversations with farmers is next on the list, but as you know, nature has its own ideas. It might be a slow process.
Palisa Anderson: honey
What does the world need to survive, and hasn’t changed, hasn’t been doctored, in millions of years? Pollination.
My ingredient of the year is honey. There are so many controversies around honey these days, because of the problems within our agricultural methods and the way we cotton on to certain fads in our diets. This came into the public consciousness around 10 years ago when the US and Europe were talking about bee death, and that came to Australia.
We had this fad of nut milks and nuts – it’s a monoculture providing that produce. Bees don’t naturally occur in that environment; they have to bring them in. Then they sell their honeys as single-flower honeys, another fad they can market.
The way we farm, we let all the natural grasses grow out and flower. Because of all that natural flowering, the honey takes on a really interesting flavour. It’s just such a joy to watch the bees too. Last year was the first year we brought on European bee boxes. We got 120kg of honey, and I’ve been lathering it on everything. This season’s honey tastes like citrus flowers, and the tea tree that was flowering at the time, at the farm across the road. It’s like liquid gold, more valuable than anything because it means my bees are thriving – and if they’re thriving, it means we’re not breaking the landscape.
Palisa Anderson runs Boon Luck Farm, an organic farm in the Byron Bay area, as well as Chat Thai restaurants around Sydney
Gayle Quarmby: saltbush
Saltbush can be used in so many varied ways; it’s great in stir-fries – we learnt that from our friend Kylie Kwong. Because of the texture, it holds its bite. It doesn’t disappear like western spinach does. It’s also got great colour; I’m an artist and I love the contrast of the colour in a dish. And it can be tempura-ed to be a little crunchy thing to have with beer. It’s a terrific bar snack. I also make bread for my grandchildren and always put saltbush in – just for a little boost of vitamins.
It also connects us to country and place. It’s about social consciousness around our First Nations communities and their food. To bring their food to our table is really relevant in this time.
Saltbush is a pioneer plant, a great regenerator of the land. When you have land that has been overused, it can be salt that is the problem for using that land for agriculture. Saltbush will scavenge salt out of the ground and change it into a very useful mineral for people’s diet.
Suci and Santhi Ida Bagus: bird’s eye chilli
A bringer of joy and serotonin, we use it in everything from our sambals to our marinades to chopped up and added to our home-cooked pasta during family dinners, tears streaming down our faces as we offer each other more chilli! “It’s hot,” I’d say; “Oath it is,” my sister would reply … “More?” “Ef yes.”
It’s been a hot year here in Melbourne, and by hot I mean volatile and full of heated emotions. Sometimes I felt like my belly was full of chilli as heat and anger rose in me. What best to do? Cook something and add some chilli. Therapeutic and delicious. Eggs for brekkie while home schooling my teen and nephew? Sure thing! Side of chilli? Awww, go on then …
Suci and Santhi Ida Bagus run Warung Agus, a Balinese restaurant in West Melbourne
What has been your most indispensable ingredient, must-use or best rediscovery of 2021? Let us know in the comments and we may publish a selection of readers’ favourites