Home Cooking Tips (Part 1)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Take a closer look. Can you recognise the vegies and herbies?
Let me move on to some practical home cooking tips. You would have noticed some of these tips in my blogged recipes.

Tip 1: You may be a home cook, but think like a chef

My mum was a chef at work and home, so you can guess where this came from.

Professional chefs work with some basics i.e proper equipment (tools), proper environment (kitchen and space), good and fresh ingredients ('procurement') and lists or recipes. Unless you cook the same dish everyday as do some of our local hawkers, you like most chefs, need to refer to lists/recipes. I was given an IPad recently and I have found it useful to bring it alongside as I check on my own blog when cooking.

And I said think like a chef, not dress as one. And don't  behave like one of those Ramsay-types and start throwing your temper around (watch it - the heat and stress from cooking will work you up easily).

So, think about whether you are equipped and organised sufficiently to cook regularly.

A visit to the local wet market. Ask the seller and he will tell you a lot about what is fresh, good and cheap for that day.
Tip 2: If you are starting out, focus on a few simple dishes first

I desperately tried to reproduce some of my Mum's dishes when I began my career after my graduation.

I started with oyster sauce chicken, 'claypot' chicken rice (actually, only the rice cooker is used), curry chicken, fried eggs, Tau Yew Bak and some basic stir-fry veg dishes. To master some basic techniques, you need to cook your few dishes regularly. There will be days when you feel you have messed up. And you feel like you never want to cook again.

It's alright. It is normal to feel this way.

Just keep at it. Practise. Practise. Practise. But don't try to work at 50 recipes from different cuisine types all at once. As you get good at some dishes, there is a build-up of skills, techniques and experience which will become second nature as you start to work on other dishes. That is the beauty of cooking: each dish contributes to your skill and experience in another. Even getting your instant noodles right involve some basic techniques.

Yummy dry version of Ipoh Hor Fun
Tip 3: Many Asian/Chinese dishes can be simple

Some will say, "Chinese (or Asian) cooking is more complex than Western cooking."


So, you made your spaghetti bolognese for the umpteenth time for dinner. Your kids are happy but your hubby moaned and groaned about some Char Siew that he hopes you will conjure up one day. You sigh and wonder why Chinese - or Asian cuisine for that matter - seems more complicated than Western dishes.

Well, if you are Asian, it is likely that you and your spouse, having grown up in a home with an Asian kitchen (wok, lesong and a thick wooden chopping board), have been dining on 'complicated and mysterious' dishes. These memories stop you from cooking Chinese dishes, as you remember it better in the hands of your mum (or your mum in law's). This is to be expected. Experienced Asian cooks will cook their own cuisine 'unsimplified.' On the same note, have you read about how some Italians cook their own pasta dishes? It is not as simple as the watered down versions we commonly have locally. Some make their pasta from scratch.

You may have read my one minute dish recipe here. The fact is some Chinese cooking can be simple and easy too, as much as how some Western dishes are complicated and require good culinary skills. Every kind of cuisine has their own 'easy peasy, lemon squeezy' dishes, including Chinese/Asian ones.


Tip 4: Flavour your dish, please

Some housewives face this mental block when it comes to Asian cuisine. And when they get down to stir frying a dish, even adding half a teaspoon of salt seems an evil thing to do. And oils have to be used ever so sparingly...1 teaspoon, 2 teaspoons. Imagine how two teaspoons of Canola oil (no less) look in a huge Chinese wok. And you can't even begin to talk about pork lard.

Yet at the next moment, they are munching chocolate, buttery cakes, cookies, French Fries and devouring Fish and Chips.

Not fair.

Salt is flavour. A small teaspoon of it can make an important difference to your dish. If you do not have enough oil, the meats and veg will be having a swim. I once saw someone trying to cook black pepper crabs with a few teaspoons of oil. Soon, the wok was flooded with watery crab juices. 

Don't be afraid to flavour or add oil to your dish, especially if it is called for.

'Mise en place'
Tip 5: "Mise en place"

This is a big tip and deserves a whole post by itself. Ok, I will do that. Meanwhile, if you are wondering what it means: Make sure you have not missed out or misplaced anything. Not quite the actual meaning but we will wait for the next tip post.

A work of beauty
Tip 6: The Principle of Proportion

Have you noticed? Beauty is about proportion and symmetry. May it be a face, a piece of music or a painting.

Likewise, cooking.

Putting in more of this or that does not guarantee a good dish. More is not always better. Even if it is a very expensive ingredient. This is a fundamental principle which I have failed to observe at times, ending with a rather disastrous outcome.

For example, a common mistake is to use too much garlic in stir fry dishes.  If recipes are helpful, it is not so much the precision needed for each ingredient but proportion. Understanding this is important and may even help you to be more relaxed about the need to follow the recipe down to the tee. After all, your salt, sugar or soy sauce of different brands come with different intensities. The usefulness of recipes lie in what ingredients to use and their relative amount to each other.

Tip 7: Taste along the way

In fact, I will say, taste all the time. Pluck a bit of your herbs to taste. Taste your veg. You are standing at the wet market stall. When the seller is not looking, pluck a leaf, smell and take a bite. Is it Holy, Sweet or Unholy Basil?

I am not asking you to taste the raw meats, of course. Or fish. Unless you are Gollum. Imagine standing in front of the fish stall and taking bites. You are asking to be arrested and sent to "Kayu Jambatan."

Taste your curries and sauces as you cook them. You are not relying solely on the recipes. You are monitoring the progress of your dish each step of the way. Salty, sweety, soury, spicy. Balance the dish.

So, you are mincing your meat and ingredients for the wanton or Hakka Young Tau Foo stuffing. How do you know that it is salty enough or that the meat is chopped to its right texture? Deep fry a small piece and taste.

Don't wait for the dish to be completed. Let your taste buds guide you along the way.

Tip 8: Expect Some Stress

My wife often thinks that I find cooking relaxing. This is only true if it is a dish I have cooked many times till I can fry it with one hand :) (then again, how do you fry double-handed?).  If it is a new dish or one which I am not too  familiar with, I need to focus and that can be stressful at times. I did a full Thai dinner spread recently within a small 'after work before dinner' time window. I could hardly pause to take any pics.

So, if you feel the stress, it is normal. If you feel exhausted at the end of it all, it is normal. It is not a sign that you are not cut out for this. Cooking is not necessarily a smooth-sailing experience all the time. 


So, there you are. 8 tips thus far and perhaps more to come. We shall see. Let me know if you find these tips helpful.

At some point, I will be blogging some very simple '101' dishes to help beginners to get going.

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  1. This is such a good read..thanks!

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge, it is encouraging for me.

  3. I do agree with you!

    At the end of the day, when your family members happily gobbled down all the food you have cooked, you know all your hard work does pay off!

  4. Angie: Indeed! A joy to eat and greater still, to see others enjoying the fruit of your labour.

  5. I came across your blog as it is one of the only places I have found any reference to "unholy basil", and I have recently been gifted some. I have no idea how to use it! Any suggestions?
    Also, I have to say how glad I am to have found your blog - it is so fun to read! I can't wait to try one of your (or your mom's) recipes.

  6. Amanda - many ways to use it. Try garnishing it on meat or stir-fry dishes, add to sales etc. Taste it and imagine how it could be used.

  7. There are tears in my eyes as I read your "...it is normal. It is not a sign that you are not cut out for it" I have prayed and prayed for the gift of cooking yet there's so much stress in providing meals everyday. I really think I am not suitable. But you have given me hope.