On the evening of December the thirty-first, two thousand & twelve, I was busy being a hermit and cooking dinner. Unlike the previous year, we’d decided to stay away from the hours-long metro lines & traffic jams that awaited all who ventured out that evening to catch the fireworks at the Burj Khalifa. I’ve never been too smitten by fireworks. Even at Diwali, I’m more likely to take pleasure in oil lamps and lanterns than momentary explosions of light and colour.
I am, however, partial to the light & colour of a well-tended LPG flame, a textbook example of which was causing a steady, audible sizzle in the pan of vegetables I was cooking. I got busy with other things, putting some rice into the rice cooker, clearing the counter-top, so when my attention returned I discovered the sizzle had diminished to a low grumble. The gas below, too, had gone from a proud corona of blue flame to a flickering, dotted line.
The gas had run out.
That can’t be right, I thought, we just changed cylinders a few months ago. A few months had actually been, upon reflection, half a year ago, a day before I was to make several pizzas for a party. The previous cylinder had lasted more than a year so to burn through one in half the time set off some alarm bells.
But was it all that strange? In twenty-twelve, I had cooked a lot more than previous years. I had learned to make and bake bread. I had learned to make pizza. I’d made at least sixteen pies in the last six months alone. And then there were all the baked pastas, the risottos, the endless stir-fries. I don’t think of myself as much of a home cook, but even I had to admit the cooking range was in use for extended periods of time.
As I switched the pan of vegetables to the neglected electric plates that sit between my trusty gas burners, I took stock of all the things I had cooked that year. A pattern began to emerge: maybe I hadn’t made a lot of new things, but I had learnt a whole lot, about many things I knew — or thought I knew. And here are some of them.
1. Learning is Doing
Recently an engineer friend asked me how he could go about learning product design. I was more baffled by the question than even I thought I’d be. I didn’t have an answer for him, so I mumbled a quick, “well, you can read a lot, but really you just need to… design products?”
You see, though I have some kind of basic graphic design training, by now, a decade removed from the last time I was in a classroom, most of the skills I do employ, I can’t claim to have learnt in a classroom. There are certainly people who benefit from a formal education, who absorb taught knowledge well & can employ that knowledge professionally. I am not one of them.
I learn by doing.
This year, as I mentioned, I learnt to make pizza. I had had enough successful no-knead breads under my belt, and hubris said pizza should be a breeze. I could not have been more wrong. The first time I tried it, I ended up with a thin, rubbery thing which was as far from pizza as a pig is from a periwinkle. Undeterred, I tried again a few weeks later. More or less the same result. Wounded by all the failed attempts, I now consoled myself by making ordinary no-knead bread, and saving a ball of dough for pizza experiments.
Things gradually started to get better. A little less water, a little more rising time, a certain way to apply pressure to the disc — all things that were not readily apparent in countless youtube videos, but things I had learnt about my own body and how it interacts with pizza dough.
The picture above is from probably the third or fourth attempt. It was not good pizza. If I was served this in a restaurant I’d probably eat a little, leave, and never come back. It was not, however, horrible pizza, and the important part is, it was essentially pizza. This was the turning point. From this point (save for one disastrous day when nothing went right, & I ended up with pizza on the floor), the things I made continued to be essentially pizza, and got better.
I have miles to go before I’m happy peddling my pizzas onto anyone but the most trusted & forgiving of friends. My pies are nowhere like the gorgeously crisp yet pillowy creations that the best pizzerias put out. But they are tasty, and now I actually have fun making them. And in each of those horrible, embarrassing failed pizzas, lay the essence of why I succeed now.
2. You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing
I love mushrooms. One of my pet peeves about my own cooking is I tend to rely on them a little too much. If there’s some well sauteed mushrooms tossed with some hot pasta, salt & pepper, I can think of little more that makes it satisfying.
One day I bought a bunch of dry shiitake mushrooms. I quickly became enamoured by how beautiful they looked, the colours & the details etched in their dessicated forms, and kept them on the counter purely to look at them (and photograph them, of course).
Then I realised I had leftover rice in the fridge, some other vegetables, some eggs — odds and ends that were only perfect for one kind of dish: fried rice. I also reached for the pack of shiitake mushrooms, dropping them into a French Press coffee maker and drowning them in boiling water to rehydrate.
It yielded a good handful or two of squidgy mushrooms, which I proceeded to mince like the rest of the vegetables to keep them around the same size as the rice. It didn’t seem like a lot, at the time. After all, I would put that much button mushroom into a dish without a second thought. I was always happy to discover a morsel of shiitake mushroom whenever I ate out at a Chinese restaurant, so surely having some in every bite would be good too, yes?
It’s not that this plate of fried rice was inedible. Much like the pizza, it was essentially the dish I set out to make — just a very bad example of it. The shiitake mushroom overwhelmed every other taste, so the eggs, the vegetables, and ultimately the delicate flavour of the rice itself was smothered by the mushroominess, and not in a pleasant way.
And the taste was only half of it. A slice of shiitake has a nice chewiness in a soup or stir-fry, that makes you shift your pace for a bit as you break it down. But to have that same chewing experience in every bite quickly gets old. I’d not only put too much, but chopped them too fine.
We’ve all identified ingredients we like in food and sometimes wished we could have more of it. A whole lot more. But be careful what you wish for. Sometimes the pleasure you get from something is partially derived from its scarcity.
3. Food is Alive
We often forget that all the food we eat, save for a few exceptions, was alive once. In the case of raw vegetables, there’s a good chance that they qualify as ‘alive’ when you’re eating them too. I’m not really someone who attaches many morals to my choice of being an omnivore. I understand that there is a price to pay for the sustenance and pleasure derived from food, that pain and death are a part of it, and that if I were to start obsessively thinking about mitigating the pain & death-toll caused by my existing on this world as a human, logic would dictate I kill myself immediately and let the bacteria thrive upon my rotting corpse. On the flip side, I don’t think I will ever partake in eating something like a live shrimp or ant as they do in a certain world-renowned restaurant, but that’s just down to me being too lazy to chase after my food.
We are comfortable with this lethargy in urban food. My hunter-gatherer instincts don’t kick in when I’m at the supermarket. Food shopping is picking up shrink-wrapped portions of industrially-processed ingredients or finished meals. One might inspect a vegetable for flaws, gauge the redness of a cut of meat or smell the odd fish, but none of us are stalking a herd of chicken burgers, looking for the young and weak outliers to prey upon.
Even in this sanitised, packaged world, however, life finds a way to remind you of its existence.
In the supermarkets here, basil comes not in bunches, but as little plants in little plastic pots, standing neatly on shelves in their own clear cones. It costs around eight times as much as a bunch of parsley does, so I tend to buy & use it sparingly. Invariably, of course, the plant that sits on my sill, that I forget to water, gets pared down to a few bare stalks and tiny leaves I don’t bother to pick.
This plant was going through a similar phase when one day I noticed these tiny flowers on it. We compartmentalise basil as just one thing: a bunch of waxy smooth leaves with matte primer-painted undersides, ready to be picked and chiffonaded over pasta, or dumped into a mortar for pesto. We expect the little punnet of soil the basil comes to be almost decorative, maybe to keep it fresh a bit longer, to make it look pretty (and to allow the manufacturer to charge you eight times as much as parsely).
One hardly expects it to unexpectedly exhibit the qualities of actual life.
4. Food is Weird
I mentioned earlier that almost everything we can eat is classified as alive. Well, there’s an every-day ingredient that is the reason for that ‘almost’, an ingredient that is essential to our food — and you’re looking at it in the above picture.
Salt. Sodium Chloride. That thing that makes many things delicious that you’re supposed to be eating less of (or more of. I’ve heard both arguments). This is probably not what salt looks like in your kitchen, but trust me, it is 100% pure NaCl. I should know. I licked it.
My father deals in industrial chemicals, and once in a while he’ll come home with a (usually harmless) sample of something or the other before it passes on to its intended recipient. This was for salt to be used in some arcane application, and is shipped to the client not in bags of fine, free-flow iodized particles, or fancy Maldon flakes, but as these huge, beautiful crystals.
I have, of course, pestered him to procure another one for me. Ostensibly, I want it for use as a paperweight. Truly, however, it would be as a reminder to myself, that the most ordinary of ingredients is capable of being breathtakingly strange & beautiful, if presented in an unconventional form.
5. Don’t Believe the Hype
To be on the internet is to be at a war front. Not a war involving trolls & opinions (though there is plenty of that), but a war of tastes. Of trends. And being interested in food, you will in a year encounter many trends. Cake pops, and fancy burgers, the latest in at-home-surefire-leopard-skin-crisp-crust-Neapolitan pizza magic, the it vegetable of the season, the superfood, the food you thought was great but is now absolutely the reason you’re going to die within the next 72 hours. You will also find more benign trends; perfectly agreeable-sounding things that you will want to try at home, because even though it sounds not-quite-right, surely if so many people on the internet are doing it there must be some merit in it, right?
I heard a lot about orzo pasta risotto this year. So much so, in fact, that I tried making it more than a few times. I like orzo, and I love risotto, so the thought of some kind of creamy risotto-esque dish with the relatively cheap rice-shaped pasta seemed like a no-brainer.
In practice, the results were always less than satisfactory. The orzo cooked this way nearly melted into mush, both texture-wise and flavour-wise, no matter much I toasted them in the olive oil or went frugal on the stock. Again, there were no disasters, but at the end of it I couldn’t quite see the point. I tested out other small-pasta options (like the one pictured), mixed and matched ingredient pairings, but always with the same filling, warming, but ultimately uninteresting plate of food. A risotto is anything but uninteresting. It may not arrive with the brutal fist of spice & flavour that many other dishes do, but when done well it is a dish of confidence & depth. Ultimately I realised that the rice itself had so much of a role to play, and that was missing when I switched it for orzo.
Also, there was the clean-up. Except for the one time I made it in a non-stick pan, I almost always had a layer of burnt, or stuck, pasta to contend with afterwards. I tried low & slow, I tried hot, I tried every single trick I & technique I know, but once that pasta hit the pan it seemed to bond to it like superglue. Not fun to scrape off later.
A few weeks ago I found a half packet of orzo in the house. Instead of making it risotto-style, I merely sauteed some vegetables & aromatics in a pan while cooking the orzo for six minutes in boiling salted water, like any other pasta. When al dente I drained it and tossed it with the veg & some butter. The results were simple, and amazing. It did not have the creamy texture of a risotto, but the pasta itself was flavourful, and carried the individual flavours of all the vegetables. It was not a trendy preparation.
But it was a good one.
6. Your Home Kitchen is Not a Restaurant
Like the barrage of trendy foods, the internet gives us an unprecedented look at how restaurants & professional cooks work. It’s something of a requirement, in fact, that the celebrity shilling their latest cook book should have slaved away at a Michelin-starred restaurant in order to qualify for telling home cooks how to make boef en croute. No exceptions (unless they’re sexy). People now have ambitions of being ‘chefs’ (a generic term meaning ‘chief’) rather than cooks. It’s a bit like someone asking you what you want to be in life, and answering, “Senior Vice President.”
Restaurant culture has become food culture, and if you’re even slightly interested in making food and not just eating it, the pro chef becomes your role model. And with great titles, of course, come great toys. Now an ordinary home kitchen just will not do, and it needs to be kitted out to deliver exactly the kind of experience you get in restaurants. I’ve heard a friend complain about a blowtorch being too piddly to give his creme brulées the right crust in under a minute. He’s been shopping around for an industrial-grade one.
You know, the kind they kill vermin with.
There’s the obsession with making home pizza look & taste like the stuff that comes out of a wood-fired pizzeria. I have succumbed to this particular one to some degree (and might I add, with some success), but called it quits when an article suggested I whack my oven on full, and the grill on full, and purchase and ignite a portable disposable barbecue grill kit inside the oven, and keep a cast-iron pan that’s been heated on the range for at least 20 minutes on hand at all times.
(No wonder my gas ran out so fast.)
It’s not just something like pizza, though. Something as ordinary, dare I say pedestrian as stir-fried noodles can lead to all sorts of frustration. The key term here is ‘wok hei’, which refers to that tangible smoky flavour that street vendor & restaurant noodles possess, that home-cooked noodles never do. It comes about from having a huge, hot, heavy, seasoned wok, and a bloody huge gas fire burning under it. The wok is much, much hotter than you can ever get at home, and this leads to all sorts of sexy maillard reactions happening in a small amount of time, which gives you amazing tasting noodles.
At home, however, you can get the giant wok and put it on your biggest burner at full whack, and while it’s smoking up a storm & you’re tossing & tossing that thing like there’s no tomorrow, you end up with mildly caramelized, oily noodles (half of which have stuck to your wok because it can’t heat up evenly), undercooked vegetables, a very sore wrist, and are so sweaty & tired that eating a bowl of noodles is the last thing on your mind. You might do it a few times, work in smaller batches, get a few satisfactory results, but there’s nothing approaching wok hei in the vicinity of your cooking range.
So I went the other way. I took the biggest non-stick saucepan I own (six litres, more than a foot wide, and yellow. The colour is not important to the cooking, but it is to me), put it on a steady medium flame. I sauteed vegetables. I added par-cooked noodles. I let them sit around for a while as I mixed sauces. I stirred a little. I waited some more. I added the sauce and stirred some more. I waited.
I didn’t break a sweat. No part of me was sore. And the noodles turned out damn tasty. There was still no wok hei, but the slower approach meant the vegetables actually had a chance to cook & even char here and there. The noodles remained firm. It was a very satisfying meal. A home cooked meal, you might even say.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
7. Think Beyond the Box
To be modern is to eat from boxes. You may make your way down to a politically charged farmer’s market or a quaint bazaar in an exotic land to pick the day’s finest, but even then you can be sure there were boxes involved. The artisinal mason-jarred, limited run super-hot chilli jam you found that one time in that one place, is still a packaged product.
I’m less aghast at industrial food than most people. On many levels, it fascinates as much as aspects of it horrifies me. So when I saw a milk-carton-shaped box of… bread(?!) at IKEA of all places, I did not run screaming about the death of civilization. Instead I picked it up, and it was indeed the IKEA flat-pack version of bread. Just add water, shake, shake, deposit in a greased loaf pan and bake.
But like most flat-pack furniture, putting it together wasn’t as easy as it looked. The water I added seemed to hydrate only half the pack’s dry mix of cereals. The rest of it sped out like sand into the loaf pan. I transferred the whole lot to the mixing bowl, and mixed, but it wasn’t getting any more dough-like. It baked unevenly, burnt on the bottom while the top remained unremarkably clay-like. The taste and texture were about the same as cardboard box it came in.
I wasn’t expecting much, and it managed to fall short of even those low expectations. Then I had to factor in the cost of the mix itself, plus the energy required to heat up my oven and bake the loaf. My local supermarket has a similar kind of seed loaf. It costs half as much as just the mix from IKEA, and it comes perfectly baked, and pre-sliced too.
There’s a lot to be said about the convenience and ingenuity of industrialised food. You can find many wonders that come in a box. But if I’m going to have to choose between two packaged products, then the bakers win over the flat-pack food chemists.
7½. Don’t Give Up on Old Tools
I leave a final point, or half of one anyway, to the fact that all of the photographs that accompany this post were taken on my aging, well-past-cool, nearly obsolete Kodak C875 camera. I got it a fresh set of Eneloop batteries in the middle of the year and kept it at home by my desk. Though I’ve since moved to a DSLR, and a more pocketable compact, I didn’t have the heart to either retire or give away the little Kodak. It was the first digital camera I could call my own, and it has served me exceptionally well, be it on a Dubai street, the back of a Maruti Gypsy chasing a tiger in Ranthambhore, or at home where it has taken hundreds of food photos over the past five years. It continues to serve that role (at least when the batteries aren’t occasionally being poached by my beard trimmer), and will do so until… well, I don’t know. Indefinitely, I suppose. Or I might forget it and rediscover it in a few years. You never know when something becomes useful again.
Except bread mix in a box. That stuff just isn’t worth it.