Of course, you have to eat out sometimes. Since before you were born, DOJO (24-26 St. Marks Place, 674-9821 and 14 West 4th Street, 505-8934) has been the student spot of choice. Four bucks and change will get you their hijiki-tofu dinner: a tasty mess of brown rice, fried protein, and seaweed patty and salad. PUNJABI (114 East 1st Street, 533-9048) is a cabbie-favorite takeout spot with wincingly spicy $2 specials on rice; for another buck, you can get a little greenery with your meal. And the dim sum spots lining Mott Street are ideal for a weekend brunch with friends: Everyone can stuff themselves silly and end up with a mid-single-digit bill.
If you want to really eat on the cheap, though, you're going to have to cook at home. Buy your first cookbook at KITCHEN ARTS & LETTERS (1435 Lexington Avenue, 876-5550)owner Nach Waxman will steer you toward something appropriate. Get some cheap nonstick pots and pans on sale in the basement at MACY'S (151 West 34th Street, 695-4400), and a perfectly good flexible plastic cutting mat is only a dollar or two.
Ignore the fancy wood-block knife sets and spend $35 on a really good, heavy six-inch steel knife at ZABAR'S (2245 Broadway, 787-2000); it'll make all the differenceand you will use it forever if you sharpen it every few months.
Remember, ramen noodles are the last refuge of the desperate, and they don't fill you up anyway. Grain-and-legume combinations, like the classic rice and beans, cost next to nothing and give you all the protein you need. (And cook them from scratch: Beans you soak and cook yourself are way cheaper and tastier than the canned kind, and boil-in-bag rice is just wrong.) Don't go to upscale supermarkets or delis or buy fancy, expensive little packages of Yuppiemati rice; hit the ethnic groceries and haul home a huge bag. DOWEL QUALITY PRODUCTS (91 First Avenue, 979-6045), right near all the Indian restaurants on 6th Street, has enormous sacks of every kind of rice, lentils, and beans for dirt-cheap prices (discover the joy of cooking with mung beans!), and their spices are an even better deala quarter-pound of methi, or fenugreek seed, is a buck and a half.
The freshest cheap produce in town is at farmer's marketsmost of which are run by a company called Greenmarket. The Union Square market is the largestit's open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. The smaller market at Broadway and 116th Street serves Columbia students. The really low prices, though, are at the vegetable stands in Chinatown, where a few dollars can score you a week's worth of fruit and veggies.
But the point of cheap cooking is not just to survive: it's to survive in style. One fancy detail added to any subsistence-level recipe makes the difference between a starvation diet and nouvelle cuisine. A few strands of cilantro make a vat of black beans a lot less boring. A tiny drizzle of dressing made from one part miso, two parts extra virgin olive oil, and three parts lemon juice turns any steamed vegetable into something you can impress a date with.
Go to the nutty old-time houseware store GEORGE'S VARIETY in Greenpoint (759 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-389-6044), buy some mason jars for pennies, and preserve some lemons. Cut four of them into quarters lengthwise (leaving one end intact), rub them in kosher salt, stuff them into a jar, add another quarter-pound cup of salt and the juice of two more lemons, seal it up, and leave it in a warm place for a month, shaking it every day. Then you can cook anything with slivers of preserved lemon, and get a reputation as the sort of person who cooks things with slivers of preserved lemon. Whether or not that's what you want is a separate issue.