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I have a plain LaTeX file which I want to compile to a PDF. I see that people suggest texlive-full for this task. At the same time, it weights ridiculous amount of memory.

$ apt-get install texlive-full 
.....
Need to get 2586 MB of archives.
After this operation, 5304 MB of additional disk space will be used.

I don't think that such a simple operation (compiling a .tex file to a .pdf) should really require such a huge set of packages.

Q: What is the minimal set of packages required to compile a .tex (LaTeX) file to a .pdf?

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Start with texlive-latex-base. If TeX complains about missing files use "Search the contents of packages" at https://packages.ubuntu.com/ to find the package that provides it.

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