9 July 2021


Teaspoons, cups and pinches

If you have ever opened up a cookbook, or tried to make any food from scratch, you will know where this is coming from.

Recipes are always telling you, precisely, of what amount of each ingredient to use and then how to use them.

The template is predictable, familiar and comforting. First, a shopping list of quantities next to the type of each ingredient. Followed by a clean, concise list of steps to be executed in order to convert the ingredients into the end product.

How hard can it be, right?

This is the beauty of the perscriptive structure of a recipe.

Get all the necessary ingredients together, at the right quantities, and follow the step-by-step process and by the end of it, you should get what you want.

This precision is something I would like to explore a little further today.

Measured steps

I was testing out a new recipe recently and at one particular moment, there were specific words that stood among all the rest that caught my attention.

Words like 'teaspoons', 'cups' and 'pinch'.

"Wait, what? How does a recipe float between the precision of measuring in teaspoons and cups to the ambiguity of a 'pinch'?", I mumbled to myself.

Then I realised something that struck me as simple but profound. While recipes are overtly precise about the quantity of pre-requisite ingredients, it is actually much more important to pay attention to the ratio between ingredients, rather than the quantity of any one particular ingredient on its own.

In that moment of realisation, I started to reflect on old memories that were surrounded around food and cooking.

I grew up in a vibrant, food-centric Malaysian household. I still hold vivid recollections of growing up and curiously watching my grandmothers and then eventually my mother cook up incredible arrays of delicious food for the rest of the family. This was an everyday occassion, not just a one-off special event.

It was almost like everyday was an opportunity to celebrate food, and this was quite clear from the quantity and variety of food that was constantly being created.

I have slowly come to realise that it takes a lot of love and care to create meals like that.

As I got older, I remember spending more time in Mum's kitchen, but this time with less observing and more time getting involved and 'helping' out where I could (at least that was what I was saying to myself that I was doing).

From being more involved, I started to notice something that bothered me about Mum's cooking. It was how almost everything was imprecise! There was no such things as measuring up with teaspoons, cups or pinches or even a paper recipe to read from. Recipes were mentally encoded and brought to life through execution and feel, in the moment.

This has always confused the heck out of me, and sometimes even proved to be very frustrating. How could anyone cook like this? How can I ever hope to learn this alchemy?

As more time passed, I eventually left the family home behind in order to find my way through the world. To now stumble upon this story.

Rules and foundational principles are important, they equip you with the necessary 'tools' in the toolkit together with the know-how of applying the right tool to suit the situation at hand. Over time, this starts to accumulate into a sort of readily accessible library of information. I suppose one could call this 'experience'.

The rules made explicit by recipes, however, can ultimately only serve as partial truths, as soft, rather than rigid, guidelines.

They are useful frameworks to establish clear, easier-to-understand boundaries to play within but there is hidden cost of for this clarity.

Recipes take advantage of the human mind's tendency to want to take the expedient path, the one with the least resistance. They make it easy to slip towards complacency, a blind commitment to the assumption that the outlined boundaries encapsulates all there is to know.

'Get all the necessary ingredients together, at the right quantities, and follow the step-by-step process and by the end of it, you should get what you want.'

It then becomes essential to remind oneself, every now and then, that 'The Map Is Not The Territory' and that there is much more to be learnt outside of the fences that we select and establish for ourselves.

Rules can be deliberately, consciously, broken once one is equipped and ready to do so.

That is where the stress, the pressure of sticking close to the guidelines, starts to fade away and the real fun begins.

Don't have a particular ingredient? Sub it out for something else you might have hidden in the fridge.

Just ran out of soy sauce? Well, how else might you get saltiness and umami into the dish?

The capacity to look over the fence and beyond the boundaries leads to creative improvisations, that sometimes even creates a better result than what the original recipe could have done.

Cooking starts to be less about perfect execution and mindless rule-following, and more about creating something that is good.

This seems to be one of the core reasons why I have come to find cooking to be a sustainable habit over time; every meal is much more than simply fueling basic sustenance, each a chance to experiment and create something from nothing, hopefully something tasty, nutritious and then sometimes, maybe even beautiful.

. . .

In what other areas of life are there recipes, rules and guidelines that lie unquestioned?

Where else does the ratio between parts matter more than the precision of any individual part?

When you are ready, start to peer above the fence, then see what happens.

“But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self; the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone." - David Whyte