The evolving lives of leftovers, then and now.
Pre-pandemic, when my parents still occasionally met up with their church friends and family members for dim sum, I could reliably expect to find a few styrofoam boxes in their fridge every time I visited. Sometimes it was triangles of scallion pancakes or a steamed rice roll, cut into three pieces and stained with soy sauce with lumps of shrimp nestled between its layers. Occasionally, a heaping container of beef noodles — if my mom was heading to a choir meeting and dad knew he was fending for himself for dinner — which I would dig into cold with a pair of chopsticks (Jessie, use a plate! My mom would tut at me, one hand reaching into the cupboard).
The science of why some foods taste better as leftovers has been long established. Left to hang out in the fridge overnight, the chemical reactions that continue to occur well after the tupperware has been sealed create richer, more robust flavours, and enhanced textures in an array of dishes including stews, curry, lasagna, and fried rice. But beyond that, there’s the emotional imprint of a well-enjoyed meal and the anticipation of revisiting its high points the next day.
For the time being, there are no after-church dim sum lunches or occasions where groups of people come together and leave with a container of room temperature onion rings, waiting to be crisped back up in a toaster oven for a late night snack. Instead, leftovers have taken on a whole new meaning amid the pandemic.
Meal planning has become humdrum — the monotony of figuring out daily dinners only temporarily lifted by a traipse through Ubereats. As a result, leftovers have evolved from a pleasant surprise to a game of basic strategy to delay trips to the grocery store.
As a result, leftover “hacks” emerge: If I opt for large orders of labneh and hummus and other cold mezze from the Lebanese place down the street, I can keep them as dips to snack on through the rest of the week. A party-size platter of grilled lamb or chicken from a West African caterer can be thrown into easy salads for the week to come. A big savoury bread pudding made from the previous night’s stale baguette and a splash of old white wine freezes splendidly and reheats into a perfect Sunday brunch, just cue the mimosas.
But then there’s ‘your brain on leftovers’ expanding: If I pick up a large sheet of smoked salmon, I can turn it into a breakfast sandwich, a quinoa bowl, and salmon alfredo. A plain pork stir fry one night, with a few dashes of chili oil, a simple sesame sauce and chilled soba noodles can make a filling and delicious bowl of noodles the next. Further stir-fried with some grated veggies and gochujang, the pork is reinvented as lettuce wraps for lunch the day after that. A roast chicken turns into chicken melts for lunch the next day, and chicken soup made with stock from the picked over carcass the next.
And if you’ve run out of ideas, you can always dump a bunch of your leftover protein with some cut up greens into Shin Ramen and slap a Kraft Single on top. It’ll taste good, I promise.
Not only does repurposing leftovers cut down considerably on food waste and your grocery bill, it also stretches your perception of ingredients and the individual components that comprise a meal. A seasoned plate of protein is a main for one meal, a side the next, and by the third day, it’s a seasoning for a meal with an entirely new flavour profile. And as our society continues to reexamine the role of meat in our lives and the environment, figuring out how to stretch a locally raised chicken or sustainably caught filet of atlantic salmon also becomes a worthwhile exercise.
It’ll be awhile before I can expect to go back to my parents’ house to find a pristine container of beef noodles waiting for me in the fridge, but there’s no comfort lost in the meantime. Leftover flavours are still leftover flavours: deep and rich and subtly sweet, with nutty notes grown nuttier over time. I just know how to make the best of them now. Except for sashimi. I never eat leftover sashimi. (Okay, I do. But never after 24 hours!!).