When my interest in cooking started, I would follow recipe instructions meticulously, whether they made any sense or not. I blindly followed the cooking instructions and was too afraid to change anything from the ingredients list, even if it took me hours to find one silly ingredient that in reality, I could have easily omitted. I read cookbooks from cover to cover and unfortunately, treated them more like legal practice directions than cooking instructions. I was more comfortable challenging words written in the practice directions than I was in making any changes to the recipe that I was following.
As a result, many cooking disasters ensued to say the least. It was frustrating at times when the recipes never produced what they were supposed to! I began doubting my own cooking skills at times and was close to packing up all the books and jars of spices, when R helped out. He taught me how I needed to create my own style of cooking from these recipes and instructions and not blindly follow them. But I had serious reservations about my cooking skills!
I’d organised a Summer BBQ at my new house and slowly, the list of invitees grew a little out of my comfort zone. This was the first time I was attempting to cook everything myself from scratch so it was a little daunting. I pulled out my trusted recipe books but R closed the books and put them above the cabinets where I couldn’t reach them. We were going to cook ‘freestyle’! Oh my dear God. He wanted me to do all the seasoning but he did offer to mix the meat and knead it into kebabs for me. How am I supposed to do this without my book? I was all prepared with a calculator to tell me how much each ingredient was going to be for this large batch.
So, I learnt. I learnt how to smell the spice and taste each one individually. Some were painful to taste, yes, but a glass of milk did wonders to clean the palette. Then I had to close my eyes and try to visualise the kebab I wanted to create and what it would taste like. I wanted freshness in my kebab, so let’s add more fresh coriander. For spice, I don’t want it too spicy for everyone, so we reduced the heat. Seasoning with salt and black pepper was going to take a while to practice and perfect, so definitely needed some guidance on that one.
What did I learn? That as long as I have the key ingredients for a recipe, I could make it. In fact, I could create a mishmash of recipes by mixing a couple of recipes into one or even 3 into one. I learnt to play with food.
I smelt and tasted everything raw ingredient, except for the meats and raw fish of course. I taught myself how to make sauces and chutneys. They seemed the easiest at first, before I realised how complicated the balancing of flavours could be if it wasn’t done right. I had amazing fun making these but since I didn’t recognise any of the fresh herbs properly yet, it created a few little accidents along the way. The best one I remember was making a Mint Chutney with leaves that my sister picked out from my mum’s garden, and not realising that the leaves that went into the blender were infact the overgrown weeds from the back of the garden instead of the fresh mint I was expecting. Let’s just say, the taste of weed chutney is not one that could be easily washed out with a little bit of milk!
Why is my cooking style and technique so different even today?
I didn’t learn cooking from an early age. I had no interest in cooking at an early age. I have had the luxury of experiencing a lot of cuisines and have eaten at a lot of different places in different parts of the world. I appreciate cooking. I cook with my heart in the right place towards the cooking experience and for producing the best I can, but I also use the logical side of my brain. I need to know why, how and what for?!
My need to understand the role and purpose of each ingredient in putting together a dish, drives me towards creating different flavours and dishes all the time. Its not just a case of, ‘a little bit of this, and a little bit of that’. For me, I need to understand why I am adding that ingredient into my dish and what will it do to the food that I am trying to create?
As a result, I continue to read cookbooks as if they are stories. I wish more cookbooks had more background and historical information or creative direction behind the instructions in creating dishes. For now, I visualise imaginary dishes and places as I read these cookbooks and they get locked in a part of my brain somewhere. Whenever I am cooking, one of these recipe ingredients or directions will pop out of nowhere and change the course of what I am cooking by taking me into a new direction. This is how I ‘own’ my own recipe.
I cannot follow recipes very well. I follow practice directions well, and make sure all the ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed. I have made trillions of checklists to make sure I follow procedure and directions properly and have taken pride in being able to follow complicated legal directions. However, when it comes to cooking, all that goes out of the window. Completely!
I own my recipes by transforming them and creating them as part of my own experience. I share that experience with everyone that I cook for and teach. Anyone who has attended any of my classes will affirm that even though I hand out a list of ingredients that I am using, I encourage people to write their own instructions as to how to create the dish. It’s not about following a recipe, and I am so grateful to my friends who directed me and sent me down this path. I don’t think even they envisaged I would keep on going down this path though.
I would encourage everyone to read recipes, follow them to a point but use your own direction to create your own dish. I would love to see more stories behind recipes from cookbook authors and more than accurate recipes, their reasoning behind using particular ingredients would stick in people’s minds for a lot longer.
Playing with ingredients is fun. It is mesmerizing to watch kids play and experiment with food. They pick up the piece of food very carefully, examine it for a few seconds in their hands before popping it straight into their mouth. One little nibble and the expression on their face says it all. Following the same technique, play with real food. Explore their taste and texture and try to incorporate it into everyday foods. Play with herbs and spices the same way. I learnt to love vegetables this way, appreciate the aromatic herbs that transform our food and the balancing of spices.
I am seriously considering to stop writing recipes, and just post photos of what I make with brief descriptions of what is being created, how and with what objective. What do you think? Or am I the only one in this playground at the moment?