Seven things that cooking has taught me about life.
How time spent in the kitchen is time spent on ourselves.
Nine months ago, I packed in my glamorous but entirely unsustainable corporate career, and, ground to the bone, moved across the world from São Paulo to the humble island of Penang, off the coast of Malaysia. It’s a quiet, sleepy place that remains charmingly full of heritage colonial architecture, brightly painted and crumbling old shop-houses, and somehow holds on to a calm, pensive, fishing-village feel despite the continuous cropping up of luxury high-rise apartments along its coasts.
In Penang, I spent my days undergoing physical therapy, practicing yoga, and cooking. I have cooked since I was a child, but over these past few months, I believe that the act of cooking, or of interacting with food, was what really helped to restore me back to my personal equilibrium of health, happiness and calm.
So here, in no particular order, are seven things that cooking has taught me.
Patience. Above all, cooking has taught me that the things worth doing in life cannot be rushed. You simply cannot caramelise onions in less than the time it takes (though adding a pinch of salt can help slightly, I give you that). A stock simmered over many hours tastes of those many hours of steeped flavour, like the fulfilment of any practice that one has honed patiently over the years instead of just jumping in at the top. It’s really that simple. One often has to wait quite a long while for the timing to be just right in cooking. Whether it’s those papayas that are just not yet ripe enough to use, or the marinade that really does need those extra hours in the fridge to sink deep into your meat, the good stuff simply can’t be hurried.
Readiness. Just as cooking is not for the impatient, it’s also not for the minutely scheduled. This is because things will always go wrong — from something as simple as an onion taking longer to peel than expected, to burning something and having to start again — and you’ll need both the time and the emotional wherewithal to deal with those eventualities. Because halfway through a complex recipe, or with twenty minutes to go until guests arrive, are not becoming times to have a meltdown. That’s why you need to come to your countertop feeling ready to cope should things not work according to plan. Give yourself enough time to do things, and that bolsters your mental preparedness. When you’ve got everything under control, there are fewer distractions, and your mind is clearer for you to perform en point: to perfectly flash-fry your greens just before your garlic goes crispy, to ‘hear’ the difference between the pop of a happily dry-roasting coriander seed and one that’s burning. Ironically, the more time you leave for cooking, the more precise and perfect your actually cooking times will be. All chefs know that stress multiplies recipe times by at least 1.5. And so it goes for everything in life.
Practice. Everything is made better the more times you’ve done it in the past. Sure, the accomplishment of a new recipe can be a pure joy, a triumph even. But to guarantee the kind of results we want every time, nothing beats the hard slog of practice. Like the proverbial river, every time we cook the same dish, it is slightly different. The exact ingredients may be the same, and added in the exact same quantities (never actually the case for me since measurements and I aren’t exactly friends) — and yet, the unknowables — the water, the temperature or humidity of the air, the flame, the pot — so much of the alchemy of the final dish is down to the interaction of factors beyond our control. Practice, constant and patient, is the only way to get a handle on all the possible variations of a dish. Sometimes I find myself practicing a dish in my head, step by step, waiting, in a dream-like sequence, as I watch imaginary leaves curl in the heat of the pan, standing in a queue at the airport. When you know your plan inside out, it will unfold accordingly — this I believe.
Planning. Possibly the biggest lesson learned so far (ironic, given my previous job as a planner). A good cook thinks ahead. You can only ever be truly inventive, spontaneous or artistic in the kitchen if you’ve already got all your paints lined up and ready for you. This means blanching and pre-cooling your veggies. This means soaking your rice or lentils the night before. It means knowing exactly what you have in the store cupboard (and how long they’ve been there). It means knowing when to take things out of the fridge so their temperature is just right when they hit the fat in the pan. All this means that you don’t really ever stop thinking about cooking. Like parenting, I suppose, though I haven’t done that yet. If you’re a cook, it’s a long-term, constant commitment requiring the careful calibration of ever so many variables in your head. I firmly believe that cooking is a full life practice that goes far beyond the actual time you use your hands to cook, to the bigger, broader skills supporting it — of time management, risk-taking, spatial recognition, mathematics, negotiation, compromise, courage, the list goes on. Organization is fundamental — to a good life both in and out of the kitchen.
Humility. Because no one starts out a great cook, and every cook has their epic fails. We’ve all thrown out a dish that we thought would be masterpiece. Usually, for those of us who are okay in the kitchen, it’s not a disaster, and can be salvaged with a handy hack (for me it’s usually yoghurt when I’ve made things too spicy, or brown sugar, or in truly dire times, both). But there are always those meals that don’t turn out as gloriously as you’d hoped. The thing with cooking is that this can happen at any time, even when you’re at the top of your game. One second spent glancing at a phone notification can mean the difference between a well-rounded caramel and a scorched one. For me, learning the ways of a whole new host of ingredients every time I’ve moved countries, from the beans and manioc flours and the unfamiliar cuts of meat in Brazil, to the tamarind pastes and curry leaves of Penang, have been enormously humbling, since each time I’ve had to learn whole new ways of thinking through flavour balance and cooking times. The best way to remind yourself about how little you know is to give yourself the gift of some truly unfamiliar ingredients that are used every day in another part of the world. Just as in life, when we surround ourselves with newness, that’s when we realize how very small, and yet how very connected to everything, we really are.
Ingenuity. Because even the best of planners and larder-stockers will be caught out without that essential ingredient sometimes. I honestly don’t recall ever having had every single ingredient for a published recipe (mainly why I don’t follow recipes, plus that general awkwardness of mine about measurement). The truth is that any recipe on earth is tweakable by someone who knows what they’re doing. The basics are there for good reason, but if you understand what they’re bringing to the party, i.e., whether it’s acidity or alkalinity or fat or umami, then in their absence you can invite along a substitute just as effectively and often with the most surprisingly delicious results. Some of the best meals being cooked around the world right now are those meals being created out of whatever was left in the fridge. And that’s how good cooking should be — it should stretch your creativity as well as your palate, literally making the most of whatever life’s got in store for you that day.
Synaesthesia. In food, this is that click moment when you feel much more than just what you are physically consuming. This is about eating the right thing at the right place at the right time. We all know this feeling. It’s that perfectly sweet but bitingly sharp caipirinha from a shaky barraca on a Brazilian beach as the sun goes down. Or the spicy tang of a plate of phuchka in the sweltering heat of a Dhaka Friday afternoon. Or that warming bowl of pork knuckle and winter melon broth that wordlessly begins a Cantonese meal. Or that mouthful of summer that is the first English asparagus. The thing is that those moments of perfect food fit happen for a reason. They happen because those ingredients, in that precise combination, at that time of day and year, have worked for people — emotionally and physically — for a very long time. There are things about that alchemy that we can’t always describe or put our finger on. But we should fight to protect those moments. This means continuing the war against the blueberries in February and the unnecessary foams and gels when the original molecular form served perfectly well, indeed, served us in ways we didn’t even comprehend except in our tummies. Because in the end, good food is about respecting the wisdom of our bodies and our senses, and that’s what life should be about too.