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.