i don’t know about you, but i find it horrendously difficult to follow a cookbook recipe to the letter. strangely enough, i did alright in high-school Chemistry and Physics practicals where precision was crucial. but all that rigour breaks down quite embarrassingly in the kitchen… as if another more basic instinct takes over. as such, i never really take to recipe books in the way most people do… i use it more for inspiration, both visually and in trying to imagine the flavours evoked by the ingredients called for within a dish. on occasion, i do *try* very hard to follow a recipe to have a feel of where and what it might lead to in the culinary adventure. suffice to say, the simpler the recipe, the more at home i am with it.
thing is, mummy never really prepared our meals following a recipe book… and i found, from the numerous mundane chopping chores i often got roped into helping her, that the cooking part was most fun… although all that said, it wouldn’t be so without having the ingredients to play with. cooking with mum has always been very much an experimental affair and an exploration in taste and texture. nothing ever tastes the same, done twice. they get to approximate the previous attempts pretty closely but you could never say it is identical. and to add to that, amounts and measurements are always approximate. the only rare occasion when mummy deviates drastically from this experimenting cooking is when she is baking her amazing kuey lapis (Indonesian inspired multi-layered) cake for Chinese New Year… but that’s a recipe that has been tried and pretty rigorously tested. all in all, i have not been groomed for all things requiring precision in the kitchen setting.
my first acquaintance with recipe books began before i left home for boarding school in a faraway place… the little collection of recipes i received from one of my secondary school teachers was more of a reminder of the comforts i was leaving behind rather than any real possibility of me actually recreating them, given the lack of appropriate ingredients in the new country or the lack of a real proper kitchen in the student housing. and while i really appreciated the gesture, i dreaded opening it. the simplified version of many of the local dishes i love were found between its covers and it was pure torture even to open it to the contents page. and i never really considered buying a recipe book until i went to college (or as the Brits will say, University) and lived in a shared flat with a proper kitchen, which included a gas stove.
going on a suggestion from a friend, whose mother is a creative gourmand and a kitchen wizard, i picked up a copy of Nigel Slater‘s ‘Real Cooking‘ and subsequently his ‘Real Food‘… and never looked back. i like the simplicity of his recipes and also the anecdotal way he shares his unpretentious enthusiasm for food. the nice thing about all his books is i never ever really felt that i would be doomed if i didn’t follow the steps rigorously. that freedom is essential for an experimental cook i seem to be and for the fact that so very often in my life, i just can’t seem to find all the required ingredients!
in fact, that is exactly what i like about Nigel Slater’s recipes and his books, as aptly described in the introduction of my US version of his ‘Appetite‘ (acquired at a bargain price):
“I want to tell you about the sheer, unbridled joy of cooking without a recipe. I want to reveal the delight to be had from making our own decisions about what we eat rather than slavishly following someone else`s set of rules. And to suggest that our cooking has in fact become too complicated – hence the need to attach ourselves so firmly to recipes – when in truth good eating depends more on fine ingredients simply cooked.
I want to encourage you to take in the spirit of the recipes that follow but then to deviate according to your ingredients and your feelings. To understand that both our ingredients and our hunger are variables that should not, cannot, be subjected to a set of formulas laid down in tablets of stone. I want to get you to break the rules. I want you to follow your appetite.“
reading that (again) made me smile… i feel completely at ease in breaking rules particularly in the kitchen… i’ve been doing it since i can remember trying to cook, whether intentionally or not! but it’s nice to be ‘given’ that blessing… especially from the master of the trade.
these days, i don’t really acquire recipe books even though i am thrilled when i receive them as gifts and i thoroughly enjoy browsing them in bookstores. instead, i often derive my inspirations online (particularly from the links on the left featured under “Gourmands I Aspire To Be”) and since BBC now offers replay of certain foodie (or other) programmes (if you live and watch from the UK) using the ibbc service, i sometimes get to watch Mr Slater in action and i am always left hungry and salivating… no doubt, i find myself also much more inspired with foodie ideas to keep me excited about cooking and what i might like to eat, in the next meal or two…
and that is no small joy! i say it from one who cooks that being inspired is important for the activity. this is particularly so given that in many modern societies today, dining out can be a daily option. in fact, while it sometimes feels a bit overwhelming to have to get yourself fed and your sugar levels checked after a long day at work, i don’t think i will find life complete without cooking on a regular basis.
“… You can get through life perfectly comfortably without lifting so much as a wooden spoon. Fine. Do that. What I want to say is that if you do decide to go through life without cooking you are missing something very, very special. You are losing out on one of the greatest pleasures you can have with your clothes on. Cooking can be as passionate, creative, life-enhancing, uplifting, satisfying and downright exhilarating as anything else you can do with your life. Feeling, sniffing, chopping, sizzling, grilling, frying, roasting, baking, tasting, licking, sucking, biting, savouring and swallowing food are pleasures that would, to put it mildly, be a crime to miss out on. Add to that buzz, the satisfying tingle that goes down your spine when you watch someone eating something you have made for them, and you have one of the greatest joys known to man.” — from ‘Appetite’ by Nigel Slater.
and best of all… at least from my wee bit of foodie enjoyment and awareness… is that the whole eating, tasting, and experimenting feeds back into the cooking and sharing!