Thursday, April 23, 2020

Learning to Cook Intuitively

What if I told you that you may have gotten it wrong if you’ve been cooking from recipes this whole time  that you need to rethink blindly following precise measurements and instead stick to a more intuitive technique? 

While recipes have been carefully documented in other parts of the world, they have typically evaded our formal archives in India. Our gastronomic heritage and knowledge of food lie tucked away in the minds of our mothers and grandmothers, and in a few cases, in the men of the family too. Without written records, we have primarily relied on the entire culinary heritage of our country being passed on from one generation to the next orally. Sure, there have been countless recipe books on regional Indian cuisines written already — some of them by these very gatekeepers of our heritage  and there will be many more to come as well. But for the average person to figure out which of these documentations are accurate and reliable is a feat in itself. 

Yet you also probably find it frustrating that your mother is often vague about ingredient quantities and cooking durations when trying to teach you your favorite recipe. The fact that she struggles to put into words the amount of haldi needed in the dal or how long to cook the onions for the biryani is reflective of a larger cultural phenomenon that is embedded in the Indian way of cooking. I’m referring to the concept of andaaza, one which has truly stood the test of time. 

Andaaza is an Urdu word that loosely translates to ‘estimation’. But in the culinary context, it's a little more varied. Cooking with andaaza means to cook intuitively. There’s a rhythm to cooking andaaze se, a lovely waltz performed between the cook and the ingredients embracing each other in the quest to create something spectacular. It means to cook from the heart, using all the senses in union -- a sort of antonym to using a rigid recipe. 

Andaaza is not an innate instinct you’re born with, but a learned and accumulated wisdom. The general notion is that it needs to be honed over years of cooking alongside an expert, but I’ve started to realize that you can begin to acquire it even with a few sincere attempts. Having spent the last few weeks of lockdown helping out friends and family with their culinary conundrums over long voice notes, and consciously being ambiguous when sharing quantities with strangers through social media, I’ve noticed that even the most novice cooks start to become more mindful.

This might sound like a controversial statement to make but I’m beginning to believe that the trick to learning how to cook better is to develop your own andaaza. It therefore becomes essential to throw out the recipe book altogether, figuratively speaking of course. 

The most important tactic to building andaaza is to avoid following precise measurements or senselessly rushing through a recipe. You need to slow down. It may seem counter-intuitive, I know, and perhaps even disconcerting, but to build intuition, you have to tap into your instincts. Yes, you’ll make mistakes  several of them, perhaps. But fear and self-doubt have no place in the kitchen. Learning how to cook well is a deliberate process that requires patience, observation and perseverance. With time and a little kindness towards yourself, you’ll start to grasp and understand the essence of cooking. 

In fact, there is a stronger logic to support my argument of why exacting recipes are flawed when measured against this instinctive manner of cooking. Firstly, 99.99% of recipes are written with volume measurements involving teaspoons and cups and such to specify the quantity of ingredients. However, as professional chefs know only too well, volume is a highly inaccurate way of measurement when it comes to recipes. A cup of curry leaves, for example, can vary in actual quantity by even 50% depending on how big the leaves are or how tightly you pack it in the cup. Even a teaspoon of turmeric can be significantly different when measured by different people, either because of how dense it is or how heaped or flat the powder is on the spoon.

The most reliable and experienced cookbook authors are aware of this and facilitate multiple rounds of recipe-testing conducted by amateurs as well as experts, after which the data is edited based on a weighted average. The relatively more accurate alternative to volume measurements in recipes is using weight  measuring ingredients in grams and kilograms. But even with this method, there are too many variables because you’re still working with something as organic as food that constantly varies in its composition. For instance, even the most exacting weight measurements do not account for the variations in sourness or sweetness of a lime, the ripeness of a tomato, or even the saltiness of salt.

The certainty of a written recipe can be comforting in the beginning, but be cautious of getting trapped in its perils and inaccuracies. Besides, what the andaaza approach lacks for in tangibility, it more than makes up for in its sense of discovery and adventure. 

Is there a way to find middle ground then, between an ancient, more instinctive approach and a modern, measured one? Well, I’d say there is and that one way to tackle this lies in observing the professional kitchen. Although standardized recipes are imperative in restaurant kitchens for consistency, cooks are also trained to use their judgments to a certain extent, using constantly honed recipes as references. Once the dishes are complete, it is tasted and checked by the chef and feedback is given on what could’ve been done differently, if any. In this way, the cook is able to learn and apply that knowledge the next time around, thereby improving his or her culinary aptitude and expertise.

If you are new to cooking and yearning to find joy in it, I’d recommend that you try an approach similar to this. Even if you are following a recipe, use it merely as a starting point. Begin by reading it a few times and understanding what the author is trying to convey. Follow this with listing down the ingredients in the order in which they’re meant to be added and then put away the recipe. 

At this point, let your own andaaza  however underdeveloped it may be  take over. Try to remain in the moment, observing how the ingredients react and respond to stimulus, like say the pressure of the knife or the application of heat. If it goes well, pat yourself on the back and relish your wonderful creation. If the result isn’t what hoped it would be, swallow your pride and trust that it will be better next time.

By using your existing andaaza and sharpening it over time, at least you’ll be putting a little of yourself into the food you’re preparing, instead of blindly following someone else’s strict instructions. In a way, you’re striving to make the dish your own.

Honing your andaaza will take time and a certain amount of relentless pursuit laden with frustrations along the way. But I promise you that the journey is as rewarding as the destination. Learning to cook more intuitively is filled with its own kind of addictive romance, rewards and exhilarations. And as someone who enjoys cooking with andaaza, my sincere hope is that you discover it too.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Locking Down Your Quarantine Pantry

Let’s face it. The chances are that you’re barely stepping out of your homes right now. Your grocery runs are limited to once a week, if that. Figuring out how and where your next meal is coming from features high up on your daily radar. So, regardless of how challenging or easy preparing food is at the moment, keeping your kitchen pantry and refrigerator well stocked is a good idea and will alleviate the burden of uncertainty at least within the kitchen.

Now when I decide what to keep in my “quarantine pantry”, I can’t help but put on a chef’s thinking hat - dividing ingredients into categories so that it’s a reasonably exhaustive list and consciously making smart choices about my purchases. Given that the predicament you’re all in couldn’t be too different, I figured a catalogue like this might be helpful for some of you, at least as a starting point for how to put together your own pantry wish list.

While compiling this, I have considered not just the versatility of individual ingredients but also how a combination of these could expand your world of culinary possibilities during this quarantine. The reason I have broken the ingredients down into different groups is also to help make your own buying decisions easier.

Here’s a confession. I do secretly wish I could sneak into our kitchen at The Bombay Canteen right now and smuggle out some of the more harder-to-source ingredients like kodampuli and Goan sausage, or even get my hands on the bounty of summer veggies like jackfruit seeds and turmeric leaves--which would’ve been in abundance in the markets at this time. However, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to be content and grateful for what I have. So I’ve skipped out on the really hard-to-source stuff. 

This list might feel very ambitious right now but it’s meant to be an optimistic one, and we could all use a bit of hope in times like this, right? It is unlikely that you’ll be able to source everything that’s suggested given that most local shops don't stock up on all of them. And that’s okay. Honestly, I don’t have every single one of these ingredients in my pantry either. It’s meant to be a master list, a framework of reference for when you do get lucky and chance upon these items. And I certainly hope you do.

Thinking Through the Pantry

Let’s start with the essentials. Apart from rice and wheat flour which I assume you already have, diversifying your stock of beans and pulses is a clever idea. A combination of rajma (kidney beans), kabuli chana (chickpeas) and a split lentil like moong dal should do the trick, but feel free to go crazy with this one because they typically come cheap. For your breakfast fix, you could conjure up a dozen options with just rava (semolina) but things like poha help break the monotony every now and then. Eggs are probably my favorite thing on this list, not just because of its countless applications but also because I’m a sucker for breakfasty food at all times of the day. Once you supplement these staples with some super versatile ingredients like onion, potato, tomato, ginger, garlic and green chilli, you could cook up a whole lot of simple but wholesome dishes. Coconut milk and yogurt may seem like non-essentials currently but given their adaptability and their contribution to the world of curries, stews, marinades and sauces, I’ve included them in this category. 

While many of you will have a basic vegetable oil at home, investing in a few different cooking mediums helps change things up with each meal. Ghee is fantastic not just to make curries and biryanis but also to cook eggs with and sauté greens. Best of all, unlike butter it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, and we all know how precious refrigerator space is at a time like this. Apart from this, flavorful cooking oils like mustard oil and coconut oil act as great substitutes for vegetable oil when you want to alter the flavor direction of the dish.

Next, it’s time to think of flavor boosters and balancers. If your essentials are going to form the bulk of your food, then this category is going to make sure that your dishes continue to be unique, exciting and delicious. Herbs and spices are going to be your best friends until this tides over. Cilantro and curry leaves are must-haves for me but if you can get your hands on aromatics like spring onion, basil and rosemary, you’re golden! If you’re going to be cooking a lot of Indian food, then whole spices like black mustard and cumin as well as spice powders like turmeric, red chilli, coriander, cumin, hing and black pepper are a must. I also keep what I call ancillary spices - bay leaves, kasturi methi, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom - if I’m going to be making pulaos or biryanis. Apart from these, condiments can do wonders to spruce up a stir-fry, salad or even some grilled vegetables but since they don’t usually come cheap, you could avoid them. I’m a sucker for a good soy sauce, a small bottle of fish sauce, a nice lime pickle and of course, Sriracha. Thank god for Sriracha!

Most dishes you cook will beg for some form of sourness to either elevate it, so having a stash of limes, some dried tamarind or kokum, and a bottle of vinegar – apple cider, red wine or even just the synthetic kind - will come in quite handy. These are particularly crucial if you want to balance out your curries and bakes with lighter salads during the week. With acidity comes a need for sweeteners. If stocking up on honey, jaggery or brown sugar seems like a luxury, you could use plain white sugar which should also do the trick in most cases.

When it comes to veggies, go with your gut instinct or favorites unless you’re feeling extra experimental. The more versatile the vegetable -- like say baingan (eggplant), cauliflower or capsicum (green bell pepper) -- the better. I’ve been eating cabbage, karela (bitter gourd), bhindi (okra), cucumber and green beans just because my local sabziwala has them in abundance and in suprisingly pristine quality. If you’re low on refrigerator space, invest in more sturdy gourds, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins which can be kept out for weeks without spoilage. Make sure you try to include leafy greens like spinach, or even better, things like methi (fenugreek leaves), lal math (red amaranth) and poi saag (Malabar spinach) which are in their prime in the months of March and April. Mushrooms are precious at a time like this when our protein supply is limited yet still crave those meaty flavors.

Speaking of meaty, if you’re not a vegetarian, chances are that you’re likely to be craving meat and seafood, now more than ever. Supply chains and sources for these are a little more challenged right now, so my advice is to take what you can get. The easiest to find should be chicken. I typically buy only chicken legs because they’re more flavorful and end up being juicier in practically every cooking application of poultry. Do not waste your time on the breast. If you can find shrimp or mutton, grab them! If you’re looking to be prudent, now is a great time to be cooking less expensive fish like sardines and anchovies, offals like chicken gizzards and liver, and less popular meat cuts like goat trotters or nalli.

If you’re looking to bake with all the free time you now have, your pantry should have baking powder, baking soda, yeast and butter at the very least. Cooking chocolate and heavy cream will be a nice addition too.

In case you’re one of the lucky few that has some certainty of a steady income over the next several months or are willing to splurge, there are a few things you can get to prepare that one-off, fancy schmancy meal.  If you like Italian or European food, try finding some pasta (any pasta), extra virgin olive oil, good cheese and maybe even salumi and olives. I get cravings for Thai curry every now and then, so I try to get my hands on a decent curry paste or even Thai aromatics like lemon grass, limes leaves and galangal so I can make my own. For that salad dinner I alluded to earlier, hunt for whatever lettuce is available like iceberg or romaine. English vegetables like snow peas, baby corn, bok choy, broccoli and fennel are particularly apt if you’re making roasted veggies, pasta or to top that pizza you’ve been aspiring to make. Dry fruits like prunes or dates and nuts like peanuts and almonds will add a really lovely contrast to salads, stir fries and even in dessert, not to mention doubling up as great snacks through the day.

Here’s the entire list in decreasing order of usefulness. Happy cooking!

The Full Quarantine Pantry List

Cooking mediums
Vegetable oil
Mustard oil
Coconut oil

Flour or atta
Pulses & legumes - rajma, channa, moong dal
Breakfast – rava, poha
Onion, potato, tomato, garlic, ginger, green chilli
Coconut milk

Flavor boosters & balancers
Cilantro, curry leaves, basil, spring onion, rosemary

Powdered - turmeric, red chilli, coriander, cumin, hing, black pepper
Whole – black mustard, cumin
Ancillary - bay leaves, kasturi methi, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom

Sauces & condiments 
Soy sauce, fish sauce, pickle, sriracha or some red chilli sauce

Sour punch
Limesdried tamarind or kokum, vinegar (apple cider/red wine/synthetic)

Honey, jaggery, brown sugar

Eggplant, cauliflower, capsicum, cabbage, karela, bhindi, cucumber, green beans, etc.
Gourds, sweet potatoes, pumpkins
Spinach, methi, lal math, poi saag

Chicken legs (on or off the bone), shrimp, mutton
Sardines, anchovies
Chicken gizzards, chicken liver, nalli

Baking supplies
Baking powder
Baking soda
Cooking chocolate
Heavy cream

Pasta or noodles
Extra virgin olive oil
Cheese, salumi & olives
Thai curry paste or thai aromatics (lemon grass, galangal, lime leaves)
Salad lettuce – iceberg, romaine
English vegetables – snow peas, baby corn, bok choy, broccoli,  fennel 
Dry fruits – prunes, dates, peanuts, almonds

Friday, April 3, 2020

Cooking in the Time of Corona

In these daunting times, as many of us shift between trying to make sense of everything and figuring out how to comfort ourselves, I found my biggest solace in the kitchen.

Ironically, I have barely cooked in my apartment over the past decade. If I tried really hard, I could probably recollect every single, non-professional meal I’ve made since I moved to Bombay in early 2011. In fact, I can literally count on my fingers the times I’ve cooked solely to feed myself. Contrary to what you might assume, this isn’t because cooking at the restaurant kitchen tires me out or makes me reluctant to participate in an activity I already do a lot of. Cooking for others - either for work or socially - brings me immense joy primarily because I get to feed people happiness, elevate their moods and perhaps leave them with a lasting memory.

Somehow, I’ve struggled with the notion of cooking for just myself though. It feels odd and depressing even though both my rational and emotional mind tells me how silly this worldview is. I’m fully aware of the importance of self-nourishment and to have this peculiar stance is clearly all kinds of wrong. Yes, I do have a strange relationship with food. 

However, in the midst of this global crisis and soon after I started isolating myself in my apartment, I overcame those psychological barriers spontaneously and rekindled my personal culinary prowess. I have been cooking incessantly, not from any specific recipes, but freestyling using my own instincts and whatever is available in my pantry and refrigerator. At a time like this when I have to fend for my stomach anyway but am also craving nourishment for my broken soul, being an expert at cooking feels like a blessed skill.

Covid-19 has put us all in unique predicaments we’ve never really had to deal with before. It’s going to be a while before we fully recover from this crisis even once the virus subsides. Perhaps the silver lining, if any, is that the situation we’re currently in is forcing us to examine our priorities, lifestyles and even our daily choices. Each one of us is having to make changes to cope both physically and mentally, whether we like it or not.

During this lockdown, with restaurants being closed, home delivery options being limited, and having so much time on our hands, our relationship with food seems to have changed drastically within the span of just a couple of weeks. Many of us are having to think hard about where our next meal comes from. We’re suddenly looking at cooking—a primitive human skill of using heat to transform ingredients into something wholesome—like we’ve never done before. While some of us have naturally steered towards cooking our own food, others don’t really have a choice. The chances are that we’re also trying to be frugal with our food expenses. 

Nevertheless, while navigating this new version of normalcy, cooking serves to at least briefly remind us of the good not-so-ol’ times. Cooking, as I’ve learnt to appreciate once again, is an intuitive act that not only feeds us but is also a great way to keep our minds busy. It is a great exercise in feeling productive, something we’re sure to be missing during these Covid times. 

Depending on the unique situation you’re currently in, you’ll need to adapt your approach towards food and cooking. Some of you may have large families to feed and need to be both smart and efficient with your meal plans, while for others in complete isolation like myself, the food we consume needs to supplement the void from not having another person around. If you fall in the lucky category of having someone cooking for you - like say a parent, spouse or sibling - making the effort to pitch in with the cooking duties and easing some of their workload in the kitchen will go a long way. Empathy and kindness is truly the need of the hour and it needs to begin at home. 

It’s safe to assume that for several of you, having no choice but to cook for yourself might just be one more reason for stress in your daily lives. It’s probably a good idea to at least attempt to embrace it. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, burn a bunch of things and probably be subjected to some pretty nasty food as you start out. But like a lot of other things, if you do give it some time, stay curious and persist, I promise that it will grow on you. Maybe, just maybe, you might end up creating something truly delicious, and when that happens you too will know how special it feels. After all, the only thing better than feeding someone else is being fed. In my case, feeding myself.