Just as any privileged Indian did over the past year and a half, even I dabbled in the occasional cook and flexed my culinary skills considerably. And of all the hobbies that I picked up in 2020, cooking has been one of the most rewarding.
I know I used the term culinary skills, but I'd associate them with 'fusion dhabha' much more than 'Masterchef'. 🤣
So, my experience with cooking is still quite limited compared to that of an average Indian woman who cooks for her family. That does sound sexist, but I mean it as high praise! However, despite my amateur status as a cook, I've had an extensive journey over the years, experiencing different cuisines as a food lover. And while the distinguished skill of stuffing my face does not necessarily make me a good cook, it does lend me an advantage in understanding flavours.
Again, when I say flavours, I do not have a palette tuned to taste faint notes in wines. But I can tell the difference between a good dal, a great dal, and a Bukhara. That's saying something. 😋
Now that I've laid the context for this post, let me also state that most accomplished cooks, home or professional, are already well versed with the topic. But, to all the other lockdown chefs out there - let's discuss.
Recipes are the most natural form of passing food down the generations. At what point did they go from being a descriptive note to a more quantitative format is not clear to me. But today, most recipes generally cover all ingredients, their exact quantities, and the cooking procedure, along with occasional tips to enhance flavour.
And having a recipe is great for first-time cooks or even seasoned cooks who wish to venture into a new cuisine. More than anything else, a recipe provides instruction to capture the basic flavour profile of a dish accurately. For instance, whether a 'pav bhaji' is supposed to be tangy, sweet or spicy is very clearly mentioned even in the most basic recipe out there.
But of course, if you find a recipe written by someone who has never tasted an authentic Bombay Pav Bhaji, DO NOT INDULGE! 😂 Or indulge and just don't call it Pav Bhaji. 😋
Another area where recipes arguably offer an advantage is desserts. Personally, I've made zero desserts. But, someone who's been cooking for a while, or has been binging on Masterchef Australia, would agree with me. Especially bakers, they never seem to give this a rest!
Always follow the recipe! Do not mess with the measurements! Put a saffron tilak on your dessert recipe and break a coconut on it for luck before you start working on it! Okay, the last one is an obvious exaggeration. You break the coconut next to a recipe and never on it; unless it's laminated, of course! 😁
But there is a certain truth as to why recipe Nazis need to take a chill pill sometimes. There are more than a few issues with following a recipe blindly, and the most common is that not all ingredients are made equal.
And by that, I don't refer to the casteism prevalent in various roots and tubers or the colour racism that is rampant amongst the poor bell-pepper community. Simply put, the chillies that you may get in Maharashtra might be poles apart from the ones I buy in Karnataka. The potatoes that someone uses in the UK may be a lot waxier than the Indian variety. And this makes a HUGE difference.
For instance, imagine that you were preparing a Maharashtrian delicacy called 'misal', known for its tongue-scorching heat and fatty texture. But, hey, you've got access to only Kashmiri chilli powder, which is famous for being très mild.
So, do you follow the recipe blindly? Perhaps. If you prefer your 'misal' as sweet as a breakfast porridge. 😋 Or at least that's what I would call it!
On the flip side, if you happen to use the recipe-recommended quantity, but of Bhut-Jolokia chilli? RIP taste buds! 🙈
In addition, preferential palettes make a huge difference as well. For instance, authentic Indian chai has historically had enough sugar to send you jumping over the moon. But I hate sugar in my tea. So it goes without saying that the definition of 'sweet' in my case is much more mellow.
But this is also probably one of the most debated points in the culinary world. Should personal palettes impact signature dishes at all?
If fish-and-chips traditionally only sports salt and pepper seasoning, could you swap that out for spicier marination that suits your palette? I say, hell no, but let's not get into that now! For the purpose of this discussion, I think it'd be safe to say that recipes cannot speak to your exact palette, especially when describing dishes with a balanced flavour profile such as dal, pasta or curries.
An apt example of this is every Gujarati recipe for 'teekhi dal'. While they may call their dal 'teekhi' or spicy to differentiate it from the otherwise jaggery infused Gujarati staple, it is far from what I'd call spicy. Hence all the more reason to - A. Mention that it's a Gujarati Spicy Dal B. Mention that they are a sweet community of sweet loving people who do not take their chillies as seriously
Another area where a recipe inarguably fails is when it comes to cooking meat. You can oven bake your chicken for thirty minutes but get varying results of flavour and texture based on the make of your oven, the coil placement, the size of your bird, the tenderness of the meat, and pre-baking prep! And thus, I actually prefer the Western method of mentioning the doneness of the meat rather than specifying the cooking time.
Meat cooking, however, is not a very subjective affair in India, considering that we lack the concept of rare or medium. In India, we have medium-done, well-done, fall-off-the-bone done, dry done, and chew-on-it-till-your-teeth-fall-off done. 😋 One should always exclude the stalwarts of Mughlai and Awadhi cuisine from this observation, of course. They were the OG bbq masters.
So then, does this mean that once you've mastered a few dishes, recipes are moot? Not at all! Recipes have and will continue to provide a solid foundation to cook from scratch. They can help you understand the basic distribution of salt, fat, acid and heat in a dish. They can give you a ball-park understanding of the quantities and cooking time involved. And most of all, they can help you recreate highly technical dishes with a low margin for error.
But just as a recipe would ask you to add salt to taste, I'd say that you could take the instructions themselves with a pinch of salt! Follow the recipe, and keep on tasting actively while feeling the dish come together. Don't be scared to deviate slightly from the recipe and tweak it a little if your taste buds agree. And in addition to taste, look for colour and texture. Hear the sizzle and crackle. Smell the layers of aroma that envelop you. Cooking is a sensory experience that relies on all your senses, including common sense!
It's just that culinary common sense takes some time to develop, and you need to rely on 'good' recipes until you learn better. Ironical, eh?
But above all, to go rogue on a recipe, you need guts and an understanding of flavours that runs deeper than just salty, spicy, sour and creamy. And to develop that, it's prudent that you travel anywhere that you can manage to, eat everything that you can get your hands on, and understand the culture that defines the food.
And THAT is why I'm about to launch 'Butter on Toast', a new blog series about food, people, and the polarizing conversations that connect the two!
Catch the titular post here!