Monday, May 18, 2015

Learning to Cook

I recently noticed a significant spike in traffic to this blog and it's become pretty obvious why. The food recipes... If you're curious why they've been going up online I'm a firm believer in the following philosophy.
Only wimps use tape backup: real men just upload their important stuff on ftp, and let the rest of the world mirror it ;)

Seriously though, I have a tendency to lose things sometimes and thought that posting it here would be my best chance of never losing my them. Since it needed to be presented in public it would also mean that it would force me into writing more complete recipes rather than simply scrawling down whatever seemed pertinent at the time. (I never thought that I would be presented with opportunities through this. More on this later.)

In spite of all this, you're probably wondering why the recipes lack a bit of detail still and how I ended up with this particular style of cooking.

As you can guess from my name, I have an asian (Vietnamese to be more precise) background. Growing up I learnt that our cooking was often extremely tedious, required a lot of preparation, tasted great but often didn't fill me. Ultimately, this meant that my family wanted me to spend less time helping in the kitchen and more time tending to me studies. To a certain extent, this family policy has served us well. Many of the kids are well educated and have done well professionally.

The problem is that if you've ever worked worked a standard week over any period of time then you ultimately realise that a lot of the time you don't want to spend heaps of time cooking whether for yourself or for others (this style doesn't work long term). 

This is where I radically differ from my family. Many of them see cooking as a necessary chore (who wants to die, right? :-)) and they labour over it or else they love it with such a passion that they lose sight of the fact that there's only 24 hours in a day (there are/have been some professional chefs in the family). Ultimately, they end up wearing themselves out day after day but I've learnt to strip back recipes to their core flavours so that I can cook decent tasting food in reasonable amounts of time.

Like others, I went through multiple phases from a culinary perspective. As a child I loved to eat most things thrown at me (but my family didn't want me in the kitchen). In my teenage years, I used to enjoy and revel in fast and fatty foods but basically grew out of it as I discovered that it wasn't all that filling and could result in poor health. Just like the protaganist of 'Supersize Me' I found out that some of my bodily functions didn't work quite as well on this particular diet.

Eating out was much the same because they often added unhealthy elements to meals (high levels of MSG, sugar, salt, etc... to boost the taste). Not to mention the fact, that serving sizes could sometimes be low and prices relatively high. I basically had no choice but to learn to cook for myself. In the beginning, I began trying to reproduce restaurant meals badly. I didn't have the reportoire to be able to reproduce and balance flavours well enough to do a half decent job. Over time, I spent more time exploring cheap restaurants, diners, etc... around where I studied and/or worked. I also watched, read, and in general spent more time in the grocer just trying random sauces, spices, and so on... I developed a sense of flavour and how to achieve them from base ingredients.

This is why none of the recipes contain exact amounts of ingredients (at the moment). It's also because that was the way I learnt to cook (I was taught a bit by some of my aunts), some of the lesser talented members of the family had a tendency to fiddle constantly so listing amounts was basically useless, some people (family or not) aren't willing to share ingredients so you just have to figure it out when and if you have to, and finally I figured out that it was the easiest way for me to learn to cook. When you look at a recipe, you're often doing mental arithmetic in order to make it 'taste right'. By developing a better sense of taste I could mostly forgo this and not have to suffer the consequences of a mathematical screw up (it happened enough times in the family for me to learn to not become so reliant on it).

In general my perspective with regards to food are the following:
  • kids will eventually learn what fills them and fast food will make them feel like horrible. They will grow out of it and eat properly eventually if they are exposed to the right foods
  • rely on machinery when you can. Why waste you're time cutting food perfectly if you can get it done in a fraction of the time using the right equipment?
  • why bother with perfection if you can achieve 95% of the taste and 50% apparent effort
  • I'd much rather spend time enjoying food than cooking it
  • prior to marinating any piece of meat I create the core sauce/marinade seperately first and then add the meat. There's no chance of food posioning and I get to have an idea what it will taste like
  • balance of flavours is more important than exact amounts over and over again. You may have a different preference from time to time also. Obviously, the converse is also true. Exact amounts give you a basis from which to work from
  • don't think that more resources will make you a better chef. It's possible that the exact opposite is true at times. Think about the food of the wealthy versus that of the poor. The poor have to make the most of everything that is thrown at them, extracting every last single ounce of flavour from something small/cheap while the wealthy have the basically mix and match the very best each and every time. From a chef's perspective this means that they don't have the chance to understand flavours at a more elemental/core level
  • shop from specialist butchers, fishmongers, etc... they will often be able to get you unusual cuts/meats, have better knowledge, do extra things like cutting down large bones for soup stocks and they are also often quite a bit cheaper
  • don't freeze if you can avoid it (or at least avoid freezing some foods). Some people I know use it as a technique to save time. For some dishes this is true but for others it can alter the actual structure (and sometimes faste. Think about soups versus meats when they are dethawed correctly and incorrectly.) of the food involved leaving it a mess when you finally prepare and eat it
  • fresh means fresh. Leave fish (and some meats) in the fridge for even a day after leaving the better/stable environment at a supermarket or fishmonger and it will begin to smell and taste slightly rank. This effect increases exponentially over time
  • try everything whether that be sauces, spices, restaurants, cultures, etc... You will find cheap opportunties if you go to the right places and ultimately you will end up healther (you learn that better tasting food is often healther as well), happier (variety is the spice of life), and possibly wealthier because of it (you can save a lot by learning to cook well). The wider you're vocabulary, the better your cooking will become...
  • balance of flavours as key. Even if you stuff up a recipe you can rescue it if you know enough about this. Added too much sugar? Use sourness to balance it out, etc...
  • don't learn from a single source. If you learn purely through celebrity chefs and books you'll realise that a lot of what they do is quite gimmicky. A lot of the ingredients that they use aren't very accessible, expensive, in spite of what they say. Use your head to strip the recipes back to core flavours to save you time and money (in procuring them)
  • learning to cook well will take time. Have patience. It took me a long while before I could build a sufficient 'vocabulary' before I could build dishes that were worth staying at home for. It took me more time to learn how to reverse engineer dishes at restaurants. Use every resource at your disposal (the Internet has heaps of free information, remember?).
On a side note, based on the contents of my blog (and other places) people have semi-regularly requested to write here and for me to write for them. I'm more than happy to do this providing I have the time and the task is interesting enough... on any topic.