Rose harissa versus instant noodles: what do students really need in their store cupboards?

Rose harissa versus instant noodles: what do students really need in their store cupboards?

by Victoria Glass 14 September 2018

After Waitrose Magazine’s controversial list of essential ingredients for students heading off to university, Victoria Glass looks at why the article was derided and shares her own student cooking must-haves.

Victoria is a London-based food writer and recipe developer. She was the Roald Dahl Museum’s first ever Gastronomic Writer in Residence and has written six books, including her latest, Too Good To Waste.

Victoria is a London-based food writer and recipe developer. She was the Roald Dahl Museum’s first ever Gastronomic Writer in Residence and has written six books, including her latest, Too Good To Waste.

Waitrose Magazine has come under fire this week for its guide to essential student store cupboard ingredients. In a list which they describe as a ‘starter kit for the fledgling cook about to fly the nest,’ the magazine includes Belazu Rose Harissa Paste (£4.35), Clearspring Organic Tamari Soya Sauce (£3.15) and Aspall’s Organic Cyder Vinegar (£1.70).

Many have flocked to Twitter to ridicule the list, pointing out that the list costs ‘£13 and you have nothing to actually eat’. Some parents have been left baffled and bemused, with one mother tweeting: ‘Uh oh…my son has just gone off with three jars of coffee, four packs of Super Noodles, two Pot Noodles and a bottle of Nandos peri peri sauce.’ While others have been predictably outraged, accusing Waitrose of being elitist and out of touch: ‘Srsly if my eyes roll any harder I'm gonna lose them.’

The ridiculing on social media peaked further as rival supermarkets appeared to troll Waitrose. Sainsbury’s (no strangers to a witty twitter campaign) tweeted a picture of their value range basic pasta and cheese along with the caption: ‘Now that’s more like it ;)’, while Iceland was even more pointed and cheeky:

‘Here’s a REAL student starter pack for you @Waitrose:


Chicken nuggets


Frozen avocados if you’re feeling fannncy’

So what did Waitrose make of their social media ribbing? Speaking to Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio London, William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose Magazine, said that while ‘it is funny to take the mickey out of things like this, I think it’s also important to defend it’. He admitted to feeling ‘affronted that if you suggest something that’s interesting and original, it’s suddenly regarded as über middle class, ‘poncey’ and over-the-top’, and argued that it was this kind of narrow thinking that has made this country struggle to have a food culture. But when it comes to the suspect nutrition in the diets of university students, it seems we are not alone.

Italy is lauded for its rich food culture, but a study published in 2015, Nutritional Habits in Italian University Students found that ‘the eating habits of young adults do not follow national recommendations. Less than 50% of university students eats at least one portion of fruit per day and less than one out of four eats at least two portions of vegetables per day’. Dietary habits have been indicated by research as key elements in both disease pathogenesis and prevention and health promotion, so what is it about life as a student that means a balanced diet is routinely disregarded?

Most students are learning how to cook and budget for the first time and not all arrive on the first day at university fully prepared for this task. Food writer Bryony Hopkins argues that students’ priorities do not involve fancy food: ‘You are way more focused on a) making friends b) having fun c) clean clothes d) making more friends.’ But perhaps there's more to it.

Looking at the backlash of lists of foods deemed appropriate for student consumption, with Pot Noodles, potato waffles, Coco Pops and frozen pizzas reigning supreme, it seems there is an accepted expectation that surviving in a nutritional hole is something of a rite of passage and all part of the student experience. It’s easy (and so much fun) to scoff at Waitrose’s list, but does doing so smack of a different kind of snobbery; one that assumes those who are young, or short on funds, don’t deserve to eat nourishing and exotically flavoured foods?

While rose harissa and organic cider vinegar are unlikely to be at the top of most people’s lists for indispensable ingredients, an attitude that dictates that students should not get above their culinary station shouldn’t be so quickly laughed off. If university marks a time that bridges childhood and becoming a self-reliant adult, is living off baked beans and beer really the best lesson in self-sufficiency?

Nicola Lando, owner of online speciality ingredients retailer Sous Chef, regards it as ‘incredibly patronising to both students and parents to suggest that cooking good food, a huge joy shared with friends and important for your health, should – at one of the most exciting times in your life – instead be replaced with instant plastic-sleeved identikit dinners.’ She argues that ‘few would baulk at a student buying tomato ketchup for £2, so why the fear of a vinegar that might go in salad dressings rather than on chips?’ While she concedes that there are far cheaper ways to buy the sorts of ingredients in Waitrose Magazine’s suggested student shopping basket, such as from Asian supermarkets, she argues that ‘cooking at home, even with relatively expensive ingredients, compares extremely favourably cost-wise with eating out.’ If no one would raise an eyebrow at a student spending their loan on an overpriced burger and chips at the end of a drunken night out, why the fuss about exotic comestibles which, as Sitwell points out, ‘will linger in your store cupboard, they will last in your fridge, and they will help you create more interesting, more tasty food,’ and, he argues, could increase your popularity and help make you friends.

Food writer and food poverty campaigner Jack Monroe admitted to not having any of the Waitrose ingredients in their kitchen, so created their own list of student essentials for under a fiver in response. The list, which includes curry powder, stock cubes and stuffing mix, proves that great taste doesn’t need to break the bank.

A voice that seems to have been shouted over in this debate is that of students themselves. I talked to Daisy Rich-Overall, a first year English Literature student at the University of Sussex, who told me she values quick and easy over anything else and that, because money is scarce, she’d rather not take the risk on expensive unfamiliar ingredients she might not like ‘and end up with Flora on toast for the rest of the week’.

‘I’d love to get creative in an ideal world, but I think as I’m only just about crawling in this rather daunting world of roasting and steaming it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to arm me with ingredients that I’d struggle to locate in my local corner shop.’

Izzy Groenen, a second year student at UEA, agrees. She thinks Waitrose Magazine’s list is ‘unrealistic’ and, while she feels ‘it is an aim for students to branch out from the normal bog standard home cooking’, she thinks anything too ‘niche’ is best avoided and regards ‘different dishes such as a risotto or different curry options that are the most cost efficient’ as much better bets.

Waitrose Magazine may be guilty of missing the mark when it comes to the most crucial staples for a student’s shopping basket, but the fact remains that students and the demographic they largely represent (young people, with limited funds) deserve to eat well. Nobody should be required to earn any stripes before being deemed worthy of exciting flavours, but neither should they be required to bankrupt themselves doing so.

There’s nothing wrong with eating the odd Pot Noodle or frozen pizza (especially if you’ve got the metabolism of the average eighteen-year-old), but some balance is needed. If students don’t know how to use flavour to pep up basic and cheap ingredients, or how to balance their dishes with proper seasoning and acidity (a whole bottle of vinegar is, after all, far cheaper than fresh lemons and limes), it’s unlikely they’ll be inspired to cook and eat their own food; which, aside from being a great shame, will also end in great expense. So what do students really need?

Here’s my list of versatile and inexpensive student store cupboard ingredients. This is by no means an exhaustive list and is strictly store cupboard only – there are no fresh ingredients here. I’ve included just enough spices to make a decent curry, a Spanish-style white bean stew, a chilli, or even a basic fajita seasoning. I’ve steered clear of endless dried herbs and chosen oregano for its versatility and added a packet of dried chilli flakes, which (aside from adding heat to any of the dishes above) can also be used in simple pasta sauces and cheap and nourishing egg dishes. Salt and pepper are essential, and soy sauce and sesame are required for the classic student favourite of stir-fry. No kitchen should be without cooking oil and tinned tomatoes, but I almost made the contentious decision to eschew stock cubes on account of there being enough flavour to be found in this cupboard already for soups and stews to be topped up with just water, but it's tricky to make risotto without stock.

I have even included one of Waitrose Magazine’s much-maligned list’s ingredients in the shape of vinegar, but organic apple cider is optional. Vinegar is perfect sloshed on chips and whisked up to make a quick salad dressing, but a little dash is also a very inexpensive way to add balance and lift to almost any dish.

Victoria's student store cupboard essentials

  1. Rice (risotto and basmati or long-grain)

  2. Pasta and noodles

  3. Dried or tinned pulses and beans

  4. Ground cumin

  5. Turmeric powder

  6. Ground coriander

  7. Paprika

  8. Dried oregano

  9. Fine sea salt

  10. Black pepper

  11. Dried chilli flakes

  12. Soy sauce

  13. Sesame oil

  14. Vinegar (the organic apple cider variety totally optional!)

  15. Cooking oil

  16. Tinned tomatoes

  17. Stock cubes