When June Xie was in the third grade, her teacher announced that they were going to compile a classroom cookbook, with each student bringing in a family recipe. It made Xie’s stomach sink.
“That’s such an American tradition, written down recipes with exact amounts,” Xie says, in the living room of her apartment in Woodside, Queens. “I grew up with Chinese immigrant parents: home cooking was just chop your vegetables, throw them in a wok with oil, season it with salt and maybe some kind of spice and serve it alongside rice. There was no sauteeing onions for seven minutes exactly. When it’s done, it’s done.”
Still, Xie and her mom did their best. They had moved to New York from Beijing when Xie was seven years old, so they were both still learning English. They tried to write down a recipe for something they cooked often (“probably tomato and eggs”, she remembers) and then translated it into English as best they could. The teacher was not impressed. “She said she couldn’t use the recipe because not only was the English not clear enough but all the amounts were in grams and kilos – and she wanted cups and ounces. Everything was wrong, basically. I just remember crying.”
The ability to cook anything, any time without referring to instructions might not have helped Xie in school, but it has made her one of New York’s greatest food resources, maybe the last person in the city who can find a way to eat something delicious for less than a dollar. She is a jazz cook, improvising with her ingredients, constantly turning yesterday’s dinner experiments into tomorrow’s breakfast – but many of the meals she comes up with are restaurant quality, full of unexpected flavour combinations and fresh produce. And most impressive is the way she can transform a $1 bag of vegetables that are close to going rancid into gourmet-looking ingredients that can be used all week.
She demonstrates these skills in a YouTube series called Budget Eats: a show where she shops on an unimaginably small allowance in one of the world’s most expensive cities for groceries.
The show feels like a kind of alchemy. There are no bright lights, slick editing or planned recipes to follow. Episodes last as long as they need to, often over an hour, with Xie baring her soul as well as her culinary skills.
Budget Eats has been running for two years and has millions of viewers. What makes it unlike other food content is that the savings come not from coupons or hacks, but from adopting a different mindset.
“A lot of people have written to me saying: ‘You’ve changed the way that I cook.’ I think food media has this effect of making people feel inadequate and it actually intimidates them away from cooking. People are shocked to find out that you can substitute things and the world won’t end. Every ingredient can be treated every which way if you’re open to the possibility of experimentation. You can blend up celery, you can blend up rice, you can blend up wheat, you can blend up eggs. There is no best way.”
But the first time Xie pitched Budget Eats to her employers at the recipe and food website Delish, they weren’t that interested. Xie’s job was to develop recipes for professionally styled food videos shot in fancy test kitchens. A show about spending as little as possible, bags of half-rotten vegetables and making food that tasted good but might look ugly, shot in a tiny and unremarkable home kitchen: it didn’t really align with the brand’s values, they thought.
But then the pandemic hit, all other production was halted, and they told her to give it a go. She shot the first episode, “I lived on a $5 a day budget for a week in New York City”, on her Google Pixel phone. A mix of reality show (Xie feeds her dog, Tom, and thinks out loud in her kitchen) and incredibly cheap cooking (from a $35 weekly she manages to make a Lebanese mujaddara, a sweet potato gnocchi, split-pea soup with brown rice crackers, spicy potato and rice pancakes and a ton of other meals), it quickly became one of the most popular videos in Delish’s history, so she kept making more.
“When I was looking for inspiration for those early episodes, the only YouTube videos about money-saving cooking I could find were mommies who go to Walmart and I was like, ‘They’re buying a gallon of milk for 87 cents.’ But that doesn’t make sense in New York, where you can easily spend $4 for the saddest gallon of milk. So I knew I’d have to find a different way to make things work. I couldn’t be so prescriptive – even if your store does have sales, the sales change every week. Oatmeal can be $4 one week and $6 the next.”
Because the Guardian is an international operation, a little note on food prices in New York City: they are a lot. If you’re coming here from Milwaukee, you’ll be shocked. If you’re coming from Scunthorpe, you’ll be horrified. Right now on FreshDirect, a big online supermarket known for decent prices, a regular box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes costs $7, a 5-pack of everything bagels costs $8, 12 organic eggs cost $8, a 1-litre carton of Oatly costs $4.79, and a single navel orange is $2. That’s before you even get into eating out: a ham and cheese baguette from Pret is $12.50.
But Xie finds tiny loopholes in the blanket ruling that New York is expensive and exploits them for all they’re worth.
She says the first rule of budget cooking is always to look for the sales. “Just keep your eye open for whatever is on sale and buy as much of it as you can afford. You’ll find ways of using those sale items and if you don’t know how to use it, you’ll learn. It’s all just food and it’s interchangeable.”
“It’s also the little things,” she says, gesturing around her kitchen. “The one thing people get wrong is always buying the same stuff. If you know rice, potatoes and beans are always cheap, you might keep getting them. But you can burn out. I would invite you to buy different ingredients in the same price range and just try them out.”
On one episode of Budget Eats, for example, Xie discovered a strange grain on sale at her local store. “I had no idea what it was. It kind of looked like farro – and you know I made rice pudding with it, I made a stir-fried grain with it, I blended some into flour and made pasta with it – and it was fun! I think that’s the trick.”
But, she says, the easiest way for me to learn how to buy on a budget is for her to show me. So we head out of the apartment and into Queens to shop at one of her favorite grocery stores: HF Dollar & Up Fruit and Vegetable. It is a heaven of produce, big boxes of tangerines and rambutans lined up outside, bags of peanuts, durians and fresh meat stacked high inside and then, for Xie, the star of the show: the $1 bags.
“If you go to Chinese grocery store, they will always have a discount bin like this. One dollar’s worth of things that have basically started to go rotten. And my mom always hated my dad buying those bags, but I loved buying those bags with my dad.”
Because everything is a bit cheaper here, there’s more freedom to experiment. To go grocery shopping with Xie is to go to the factory with Willy Wonka – we stop at a pile of Italian grapes, which I’ve never tried. “Oh, you’ve got to, they’re so good.” I fill up a bag, and another of rambutans. On Xie’s recommendation, I also get some ching yeh pork sung, a kind of dried pork candyfloss, some sweetcorn-flavoured chips and some dried prawns that are sugary and sweet.
As we walk through Jackson Heights, I eat my whole bag of Italian grapes. They taste rich and winey and my whole bag was only $1.35. I scoop a piece of porky candyfloss on to my finger and it melts in my mouth, a world of new taste and textures hitting my tongue.
Xie makes no bones about the fact that the way she does it, hunting down cheap ingredients and cooking everything from scratch, takes a huge amount of time and labor that most people don’t have. “Making Budget Eats is exhausting,” she says. “Trying to record a video for a huge media corporation that has to be polished, learning what the boundaries are between home life, self-presentation, identity, transparency. The first year was so taxing because I didn’t know how to do any of it. It’s a whole week of planning, shopping and gathering – then another week of shooting, 12- to 16-hour days.”
She was also unsure about how much of herself to give over – the weeks are often tiring and emotional and Xie talks honestly in her videos about how much she was affected by the death of her mother, the isolation of the pandemic and her own concerns about money.
“The fact that we value the idea so much of privacy is fascinating to me. I just let go of all my personal things as a way of freeing myself of being a commodity. It’s deprivatizing myself. It’s liberating. I am then free to just be, rather than curate. If I don’t curate my personality, no one can call me out for being a fake.”
Xie’s extra tips for making food taste delicious and money go further:
Always store your flours in the freezer, especially in this city. There are bugs everywhere and they can quickly go rancid in the summer months. Nuts, too – they’re full of fat so if you leave them at room temperature they’ll start to smell like burnt gasoline.
More expensive isn’t always better. If it’s something that you taste right away – like butter and jam on toast – then it’s worth spending a little bit more on the butter. But if you’re buying butter to bake into cookies, then it’s just an ingredient; you can get the cheapest one.
Trader Joe’s umami seasoning is very underrated. The best cumin seeds come from Burlap and Barrel, and Sichuan peppercorns from 50Hertz are the best you can get in the US.
If I can’t see an ingredient, I won’t think about how it would taste and then I won’t use it. So have everything just out. Even stacked on the floor. If it’s tucked away, then I won’t think, “Ooh, maybe coconut goes with cumin.”
When I eat out with friends, I just make it clear with them if I’m on a budget. I can’t spend more than $20 today so where can we go for that? It avoids the awkwardness of splitting the bill and it makes it kind of fun.