The missing ingredient

South Africa’s celebrated All Sorts Cook, Chantal Lascaris, shares her secrets on quick-fix substitute ingredients… and the two that are beyond replacement. We also reveal her signature butter chicken recipe, and news about her latest book.   

I once made a delicious butter chicken recipe for a group of friends and left out the rice – by accident (you can imagine my horror!) Don’t judge. It happens. Even the most experienced of us in the kitchen can trip up – and that’s okay. Cooking, for me, has always been about experimenting with flavours and different ingredients and – most importantly – cutting yourself some slack when you get it wrong. 

As a professional cook, the aim of course is to not get it wrong as best as you can and so I’ve learnt over the years how to switch things up. You may not always have the correct ingredients in your cupboard – or you may over spice or under spice a pot of food (or, hey, leave out the other half of your meal altogether!). When this happens, we tend to believe there is no way out. Oh, but there is. There always is.

Believe it or not the cooking process comes with forgiveness. They’re called Substitutes – and they work. Just when you think you’re doomed to fail because you’re missing an ingredient that the recipe calls for, think again. Most often, you’ll be able to replace a missing ingredient in the pot with a little something else that’ll do just as well.

Parsley, Lime, Walnuts and even Sumac – they’re all replaceable. Except Garlic. Garlic and – wait for it – Love. In my books, these royal two are THE only ingredients you can never replace. You’ll always (always!) need an extra stash of these lying around – because they matter more than you think. 1. Garlic is not only the king of flavour but its immune boosting properties are essential to our health and 2. Love is the queen of everything.    

For me, Garlic is like the god of the kitchen and Love is its muse. While Garlic is a firm favourite of mine, the truth is – a recipe may not always need it. But Love – oh Love – is the only ingredient that goes with everything. You can’t miss it – you shouldn’t miss it. There is absolutely, irrevocably no replacement. This, I can promise you.      

Our lives are incredibly frenetic; with a million new things to attend to and business as usual, we hardly have time anymore to think of dinner or to shop ingredients. It’s comforting to know that more often than not, when there’s something missing in your bag of tricks, there’s always another chef’s trick you can reach for.

So, here’s a little pocket keeper from me, for the next time you’re ‘missing something’:

Shallot = red onion

Parmesan Cheese = pecorino Romano (easily available)

Fresh Parsley = dried parsley or celery leaves

Nutmeg = cinnamon

Greek Yoghurt = double thick yoghurt

Red onion = chives or shallots

Soy Sauce = Worcestershire sauce

Sumac = lemon pepper or lemon zest

Lime = lemon

Bacon = pancetta

Chilli Flakes = fresh chopped chillies

Corn Kernels = frozen corn or tinned corn or mange touts

Spaghetti = zucchini spirals

Honey = brown sugar

Walnuts = pecans

Dried Mint = fresh mint or dried marjoram

Love = There is no substitute. Irreplaceable.                

Garlic = No substitute. See Love.

Better Butter Chicken recipe

I love the idea of making this all-in-one dish. It’s one of my favourite ‘go to’ meals as it has all the qualities and flavours of butter chicken, but with a little less fat than is usual. It’s more about flavour than mere hot spice so it appeals to just about everyone. The secret to the tender chicken is the marinating, so the longer you leave it in the sauce, the tastier and more succulent it will be.


400–500g chicken breast fillets, sliced into strips

1 onion, chopped

1 Tbsp olive oil

50g roasted cashews, chopped

1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes

1 tsp crushed garlic

salt and pepper to taste

2½ Tbsp sugar or sugar substitute

2 tsp garam masala

1 tsp curry powder

2 tsp white wine vinegar

2 Tbsp water

3 Tbsp butter

5 Tbsp Greek yoghurt

fresh coriander for garnishing

sliced fresh chilli for garnishing (optional)


½ tsp crushed fresh ginger

½ tsp crushed garlic

1 tsp curry powder

1 Tbsp olive oil



To prepare the marinade, place the ingredients in a sealable bag and add the chicken. Massage well, ensuring that the chicken is coated. Leave to marinate for approximately 30 minutes, or longer if possible.

Meanwhile, in a large pot, gently sauté the onion in the olive oil until softened. Add the chopped cashews to the onions, along with the canned tomatoes and stir together. Mix in the garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, garam masala, curry powder, white wine vinegar and water until well combined. Leave to simmer for approximately 10 minutes.

Remove from the heat and, using a hand blender, blend the ingredients until fine. Add the marinated chicken (including any leftover marinade) to the sauce and continue to cook until the chicken is done. Be careful not to overcook the chicken.

Add in the butter and Greek yoghurt and stir until the butter has melted and all the ingredients are well blended. Garnish with fresh coriander and sliced chilli (if using).

And don’t forget the rice!

Chantal’s latest book entitled “The Ultimate Salad Book” is available from Exclusive Books, Takealot, Loot and Reader’s Warehouse (just in time for summer).

Chantal says it’s time for the salad to take centre stage! Traditionally salads have been viewed as side dishes, but those featured in The Ultimate Salad Book, are anything but as they move boldly into the realm of main dishes. And nobody knows better how to achieve this than Chantal as she presents this delicious collection featuring international flavours to the South African kitchen. Although the salads are simple, they are nourishing and boast plenty of nutrient-dense ingredients including leafy green vegetables, whole grains, seafood, poultry, beans, nuts and fruit. What’s more, they can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even dessert.

Words: Chantal Lascaris and J-P de la Chaumette
Production: J-P de la Chaumette
Images: supplied