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Basic principles

January 5, 2012

How to become a better cook

I vividly recall the first dish I ever tried to cook when I was twelve. It was my version of fried rice whose recipe I had tried to guess by watching the cook in the "Chinese" food van near my house.

It was an undeniable disaster.

Fortunately I now know that teaspoons of turmeric powder are not quite the same as soy sauce, which is what gave the rice its brown colour. So if you think you're a terrible cook because you have trouble making even instant noodles, trust me that everyone starts offs as a blank slate.

"I suck at cooking. Can I ever be a good cook?" is something I hear a lot. The theme of this issue of Indulge is "deconstruction" so it's a good time for me to take you through the stages of evolution from knowing nothing at all to becoming a great cook. I'll pretend to be Buddha-like and call it an "eight-fold path to cooking enlightenment". Let's start with...

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August 13, 2004

Cooking seafood properly

It's always great to get reader mail, especially when they have genuine problems that inspire an article. This one comes from Shanti, who says:

Whenever I cook salmon (not like a curry, but pan-fried), it tends to become too hard. How do I keep it flaky and soft? We cook it till we think it is well done - about 10 minutes on each side.

Well, first of all, I'm envious of Shanti having salmon. I wish we in India got decent salmon at a decent price. Sadly, neither of those has happened. 

Her question, however, is quite simple to answer.

Just don't cook it to death, my dear lady.

10 minutes on each side murders any texture, moisture or flavour the fish has got, unless your steaks are 2 inches thick, of course. (And if they are, you have a very accommodating mouth, I must say.)

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August 1, 2004

Hot wok, cold oil

When I was a young lad, I got hooked on watching cookery shows. At that time, we only had one Star TV channel, but much to my delight, they showed a different cooking show every afternoon. One of my favourites was The Frugal Gourmet by Jeff Smith (who recently died, unfortunately). One of the first cooking principles I learnt from him was "hot wok, cold oil; food won't stick" (A wok is a Chinese frying pan; a beastly version of our kadhai). This simple piece of advice can dramatically improve your cooking. It certainly made a difference to mine!

I've watched plenty of friends and family cook dishes at their homes, and one of the most common mistakes is to not bring the frying pan or cooking vessel to the correct temperature before adding oil. If you add cold oil to a pan that's not hot enough, you will lower the temperature of the pan even further. When you then add your seasonings or other ingredients, it will no longer fry. Instead it will soak in the oil.

When an ingredient soaks in oil without frying, it has many nasty side effects. First, because the oil isn't hot enough to sear the outside of the meat or vegetable, it gets absorbed into the food, making for a greasy dish. Second, food will stick to the pan more. (More about that shortly.) Lastly, you won't get the texture you want.

When a wok is hot enough, adding oil on top of the hot metal create a thin film of oil that goes into the pores of the metal, creating a "non-stick" effect. The oil then dances easily on the surface. You will now have to use less oil to saute or stir-fry your food.

So how exactly do you know when your wok is "hot enough", you ask? No, you don't have to keep a thermometer handy. Some simple guides will do the trick - what Asians have been doing for ages.

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