Words Zahabiyah H.
Header Credits Zainab K. (@zkarkh)
Cooking: Experiment vs. Exact Science
The Least Ordinary
Cooking isn’t my favourite thing to do, but it isn’t my least favourite thing either. It sits between necessity and therapy as a form of disassociated work that allows for some creativity. It’s pretty special; not much else comes close to satisfying that description. However, I am not a fan of winging it; it takes a lot of experience, knowledge and genuine talent to successfully throw together a meal without having to refer to something exact. Maybe you’re referring to exact measurements, maybe not, maybe it’s tested ideas about what flavours complement each other, what method makes the most of the ingredients in front of you or how to rectify a mistake.
I look up recipes according to what I have and I try them and if I like the results, I try to remember them. I ask for recommendations on what to do with one thing, I look for whole recipes, I review my successes for what it was that made that dish successful; what particular combination made it work? The length of time it cooked, a promising flavour profile, fluke? None of this makes you a great cook, I wholeheartedly acknowledge that. But, and maybe this is some deeply problematic secret, or maybe it isn’t, I am not trying to be a great cook.
Here’s the thing though, I don’t think all of us are trying to be great cooks. I think most of us are trying to feed ourselves, our families, our flatmates, our picky friends and our co-workers. We’re trying to do well enough to make a nutritious meal and a fairly enjoyable evening. No one gets ill or eats anything that’s raw and shouldn’t be. And for me that means you can’t really experiment without risking a lot that just isn’t worth the risk, because you know you’re not talented enough to rescue anything. So, you stick to a recipe, to inherited wisdom, to the science of what makes humans feel something tastes good.
If this sounds defeatist or boring, it isn’t. Well, maybe it is, but more on that later. It’s more the process of learning. No one learnt anything by starting off throwing things together. They learnt by understanding fundamentals and then kicking the rules out of the window. If you, like me, understand that yes, of course you need to be risky and experimental to be great, but that no, you are not trying to be great, just good, then you, too, know what I mean when I say it’s rather nice to be exact about cooking.
It’s nice to follow instructions, taste as you go, learn as you try, alter only after numerous attempts and practice. And yes, that approach may be boring. And acknowledging that it can only take you so far, but then sticking to it anyway, may also be defeatist. But the truth is that for many of us, seven days a week, three meals a day, food just needs to be good. It doesn’t need to push the envelope, dare to raise the bar, be out of the box. It just needs to bring your small world together, whether that’s you and your avocado toast on a Sunday morning or all the random idiots you call your mates on the one Friday night everyone was free or your kids and their obsession (this week) with cheese-less pizza (?!).
If cooking is, at least once in a while, unburdened from the effort and the intention of being an everyday artform, an expression of your adventurous nature, the manifestation of loftier ideals on a plate, what is it? Well, for me, it’s a chance to smile at the extraordinary ordinariness of rising dough and bubbling soup. The joy of the extraordinary isn’t exclusively for those who dare to dream. Cooking is what it is to so many – meaningful and fun, time-consuming and promising, tiresome and irritating – because it is the most extraordinary of ordinary things, by its very nature. No expertise needed. It’s that most miraculous, most wildly ambitious of all things – an easy win. And that’s ok.