Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The No Recipe Cookbook

I have been working on a simple, no-fuss survival level cookbook for the past year. You'll see a chapter from it posted here daily.

On Cooking
"What's really angering about instructions of this sort is that they imply there's only one way to put this rotisserie together -- their way. And that presumption wipes out all the creativity. Actually, there are hundreds of ways to put the rotisserie together and when they make you follow just one way without showing you the overall problem, the instructions become hard to follow in such a way as not to make mistakes. You lose the feeling for the work. And not only that, it's very unlikely that they've told you the best way."

O'Reilly quotes this passage in his blog on the philosophy of open source movement. This fits in well with the philosophy of cookbook that follows.

There is an implicit assumption in many cookbooks that there is just one way to cook a dish - their way. This paint by numbers cooking takes a lot of fun out of cooking . Irrespective of how well written the book is, the isntructions soon become hard to follow and you can't avoid making mistakes. It is also unlikely they have told you the best way !

Have you ever eaten spagetti with yoghurt and tamarind sauce ? Or fish sauteed in honey ? I'm all with you if you shudder , but then I believe I have every right to do so if I want to. I don't want to live up to a chef's version of what I should eat. Nothing pisses me off more than the smug self confident chefs who perform a ritual and expect you to dutifully duplicate it.

I once read about this Soba noodles master who boasts " it takes 20 years to learn to make good Soba noodles" And what's with Soba noodles that it takes more time to learn than deciphering the human genome ? They are nothing but two kinds of flour made into a dough, which is cut into noodles. Thats it.

The 80/20 rule works here , as in most places. 80% of the soba noodle making, or cooking can be learnt very fast and the rest ( getting the texture, flavor, color exactly right ) might take a lifetime. But what the hell is 'exactly right' anyway ? Is Soba noodle making codified in a God given book ? For all you know, some bored Jap peasant might have hit upon the idea of mixing two flours to make noodles when he did not have enough quantity of one. And now it takes 20 years to get it right ! Getting things exactly right is one thing you won't learn here. I believe there are thousands of ways to get things right, and most of them have'nt been invented yet. There is no "exactly right way' to cook a dish. And that's what makes cooking exciting and fun for me.

This book is about breaking away from the cookbook tyranny. To let you cook dishes the way YOU want. To refuse to kow tow to some fancy chef's idea of what a dish should be like.

Come, let us rip cooking apart and see what makes it tick, and learn a few zillion recipes along the way.

I believe stating the problem and letting the reader appreciate it as a problem leads to increased creativity.

Les say the problem is " How to make flour edible" and not how to make 'proper bread'. If the problem is restated this way, the following experiments may occur...

1. You might try eating the flour raw
2. You I might try adding just salt and pepper + water and see if it is more edible now
2. You might experiment with various liquiods for mixing diff kinds of oils, honey, cream, yoghurt etc etc.
3. You might try various cooking methods.. or even try frying or microwaving.

Now each of these steps would give rise to whole new classes of dishes. A majority of them will be inedible, but the process would sure be fun. And you'll know what works and what does not. And the jackpot is you might genuinely hit upon a combination which is lip smacking !

It took me 10 years to realise this. 10 Years of botched dishes, charred pans and lousy dishes. What did I learn ?

Cooking is easy.
Cooking is fun.
Cooking sets you free.
The most important stuff in cooking is your imagination and creativity.
It is possible to learn and remember a few thousand recipes in less than an hour. All it takes is to change the way you look at cooking.

My style of cooking was to keep the recipe book open and try to follow it faithfully. I did not receive much fun from it and had to keep tasting the dishes as they cooked, scared something is about to go drastically wrong. i was never sure of the temperature or the time. I was never sure if I had followed the directions exactly as the cookbook described it.

And coffee table cookbooks with glossy photos of mouth watering photos were the worst as my dishes never turned out the way they appeared in the photos.

Then one day I suddenly had a flash of insight. Immediately after, almost all my dishes turned out edible ( atleast to me !). Cooking suddenly ceased to become a chore and became fun and an enjoyable way to spend time. I could'nt wait for the opportunity to cook for family and friends. And almost overnight, people started seeing me as a good cook. The highest praise came from my 90 year old grandma who claimed I had 'Kaimanam" ( loosely translated as the flavour imparted by the cook) .

From a person who can barely make a decent boiled egg, I suddenly found I was pumped up enough to try my hand at a huge variety of dishes, across cuisines. I started turning them out by the dozen, trying them out on people from different nations. One of my chief pleasures when I travelled abroad was to try out different recipes on my friends from different countries. I've fed quite a few nationalities.. Chinese, Singaporean, Australian, Arab, Indian, Filipino & Japanese, and surprisingly I've had very few disasters. I found that churning up different cuisines is not as difficult as some cookbooks lead you to believe. We south Indians are considered to be very orthodox in what we eat, but I was pleasantly surprised to found my grandma enjoying pizzas and pastas. I'm thrilled by the thought, but for me she never would have dared to taste these dishes in her life.

In these pages I've tried to share my excitement and discoveries with you. This is not a cookbook in the traditional sense. There are no recipes here. All the recipes you turn out might not be edible. Most of the stuff you turn out will not be present in any cookbook on earth. No restaurant on earth would serve many of these stuff. Some of them will be downright horrible and it is possible a few might even make you sick. So why do you need to go on ? Because at the end of it I believe you will feel you have gone beyond trying to faithfully duplicate recipe books. You'll discover your own personal dishes you might never find in any restaurant. You'll have the glow of instinctively knowing the primeval art of cooking and the confidence you have a new survival skill.
Let me summarise what I've learnt….

1. Cooking is simple

2. Cooking is highly personal ( No restaurant can give you exactly what you want.. only you can do that )

3. All the cookbooks in the world do not even comprise the tip of the iceberg. ( Combine the hundreds of varieties of flavourings, seasonings, main ingredients in numerous combinations and the possible reciopes would run into trillions )

4. The names given to styles do not mean much- they are just a convenient form of referring to popular dishes. For example a spicy soup becomes a side dish, all poriyals are nothing but salads, sambar/rasam are nothing but soups)

5.The main ingredient in any cooking is your imagination

6.The biggest block to cooking is thinking you can't do it

7. 90% of all cooking can be learnt in under an hour. Learning the balance would take a lifetime.

Cooking can be thought of as painting. You 'paint' a taste with different ingredients. Various cuisines can be thought of a various styles of paintings.

8. Cooking by recipe books is similar to painting by numbers. Not only does it kill the creative spark, it makes the whole process joyless. Would be a nice idea to write a cookbook which does not talk about 2 tbspoons or 200 gms of something.

9. The more you experiment, the bolder and better you get.

10. There is no difference between vegetarian and non-veg cooking but for the different raw materials used.

In the next couple of pages I'll condense what I've learnt. If it is alien to your way of thinking, and after reading them you feel you still can't cook, I suggest you pass the rest. This book won't help you.

This book won't teach you a single recipe, but would enable you to create thousands of your own recipes. Youa re unlikely to bump into " take two tablespoons of… " or " Bake for 38 minutes at 238 degrees". I would consider it to be a failure on my part if you need to have this book by your side while cooking.

I also won't touch upon the proper way to cut a vegetable or choose a pan or to fillet a fish. Because I don't have a clue. Go to a proper cookbook if that's what you are looking for.

Food Consultancy / Licensing / Crash Courses

Contact for complete Food consultancy from concept to completion.

Customised one page cookbooks now available for pressure cooker / microwave / mixie / masala & other cooking product manufacturers. Replace bulky recipe books with easy to refer One page cookbooks and watch your sales soar !


Cooking is fun - Duplication is a pain !

"It is extraordinary to me that the idea of creating thousands of recipes by mixing building blocks takes immediately to people or it doesn’t take at all. .... If it doesn’t grab a person right away, ... you can talk to him for years and show him demos, and it doesn’t make any difference. They just don’t seem able to grasp the concept, simple as it is". ( Thanks Warren Buffett !)

"What's angering about instructions in many cookbooks is that they imply there's only one way to cook a dish - their way. And that presumption wipes out all the creativity." Cook dishes your way - Download  1001 South Indian curries now and learn to cook, not to duplicate ! ( Thanks Robert Pirsig !)

"Recipe purity is no different from racial purity or linguistic purity. It just does not exist. Cuisines are alive and change all the time. What is traditional today was esoteric just a few decades back. So being a 'foodist' is as bad as being a racist !

About Me

My photo
Chennai, Tamilnadu, India
Okay, let me start from the very beginning. 1500 crore years ago, with a Big Bang, the Universe is born. It expands dramatically. Hydrogen forms, contracts under gravity and lights up, forming stars. Some stars explode, dusting space with the building blocks of life. These condense into planets, one of which is Earth. Over time, self replicating molecules appear, multiply and become more complex. They create elaborate survival machines (cells, plants, animals). A variety of lifeforms evolve. Soon, humans arise, discover fire, invent language, agriculture and religion. Civilisations rise and fall. Alexander marches into India. Moguls establish an empire. Britain follows. Independence. Partition. Bloodshed. The license raj is in full sway. I'm born. India struggles to find its place. Liberalisation. The Internet arrives! I move from Tirupur to Chennai. Start a company. Expand into Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East. Poof! Dot com bust. Funding dries up. Struggle. Retire. Discover the joy of cooking, giving, friendships and the pleasures of a simple life. Life seems less complicated. Pizza Republic, Pita Bite and Bhojan Express bloom !

Looking for Treatment?