Home Cooking Tips Part 2: Mise en Place

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

It has taken some while but as promised, here is part 2 on some home cooking tips.

But first, some thoughts on the progress of this blog.

I am encouraged by the number of folks who have been trying out the recipes. Some have feedback that it has helped them improve on a dish or cook a new one. Such feedback makes this all worthwhile. Someone, somewhere is being inspired to cook more, better or try making a new dish. Or ideas to add to their own.

And I get my Mum's recipes onto someone else table. Cool.

Having started blogging, it has also encouraged me to learn new techniques. It is a joy to feed some 62C 45m eggs to our weekly house cleaner, Ah Lan. She loves food and always look forward to a good meal after a hard day's work. It's a joy to see the look of amazement on her face as she enjoyed them down to the last drop. She said she has never had eggs this good before. I told her she can have them again the next time she comes around.

Ah Lan enjoying her 62C-45m eggs, sprinkled with black pepper.
Anyway, this blog reflects Auntie Ruby in many ways. It expresses her generosity in sharing good recipes. She kept no secrets to herself. I am simply walking in the same direction. And while doing all this, we can be silly and have some fun, don't you think? It can be said that my Mum was a happy woman and her kitchen a fun-filled and joyful place. Come to think of it, I cannot even recall even one occasion when she was stressed up and taking it out on others. She was always calm, makes cooking seem so fun and improvising if ingredients were missing. I can only recall her tiredness as age was catching up. Sigh...  

Ok, enough about my life. Let's get down to the next tip: Mise en Place

This is a big word. In fact, some cooking schools offer a whole course on it.

Mise en place literally means "put in place." Your kitchen is well organised. It is well stocked. When you plan a dish, you think of every ingredient you need.  And know whether you already have it or need to make trip to the shop. When you are about to cook, you have all the ingredients prepared, in their right portions and within reach of your wok. In my mum's commercial kitchen, there were always huge pots of salt, oil, lard oil, sugar, corn starch, light soy sauce and dark soy sauce by the giant wok. You may not need to do this at home but you get the idea.

Mise en place is about preparing well. Don't jump right into a recipe. You are at step 4 and then suddenly realised you have skipped step 2. You forgot to add the ginger.  It is still in the fridge. Your garlic is burning in the wok while you search frantically for the ginger. You managed to dig it out of the fridge only to realise that you need to peel and grate it. Now, where did you put your grater? Oh well, this does happen occasionally even if you have planned it all out. Let me give you one tip - switch off the fire and continue your search :)

You can imagine four concentric circles.

This rather serious looking chart is making a point - but hope you see some
humour in how this principle is being presented!

The larger one is the world out there. You know where to buy your ingredients. You are familiar with your local wet market. You know where you can get ingredients if you need to do marketing after lunch, when the wet markets are closed and the super ones beckon. 

The second one is the world of your fridge and larder. You know where you stored the bottles of sauces, herbs, spices and condiments. 

The third circle is your cooking area or kitchen table. You have all your ingredients washed, cut and prepared. They are all within easy reach.And you have readied the right tools.

The smallest one is that of your wok or pot. You know what you are doing in that heated circle. You know the sequence of when to put what in. Because you have done your work in the outer circles, as you start cooking, you can concentrate on this. You may have a printed or Ipad recipe next to you (no shame to in that unless you are cooking the same dish everyday).

But mise in place can be a philosophical concept as well. It is about how you are organised in your mind. When you cook, your mind is being mirrored. You imagine, and then you realise it. Doubtless, the more experience you are as a cook, the calmer and the better you are at organising the ingredients which go into your dish.

In my larder, I have the usual sugar, salt, pepper, chillies and root herbs like lemon grass, garlic and ginger. As listed in the table below, I also store other sauces and condiments. With these, you can whip up many combination of dishes. Just understand what they do in terms of their primary taste contribution.

Soy Sauce, Oyster sauce, Fermented Soy beans
Rock Sugar
Dark Sauce
Lime, Tamarind
Black Vinegar
Chinese Wine
Fish Sauce
Palm Sugar
Lime, Tamarind
 Lime leaves,   Lemon grass
Peppercorn, Coconut, Shrimp paste
Soy Sauce
Rice Vinegar

Sake, Bonito Flake, Konbu,Seaweed
Kicap Manis, Gula Melaka
Lime, Assam
Lime Leaves, Lemon grass
Belachan (!) Coconut
Sea Salt
Sugar, Honey
Lemon, Vinegar
Rosemary, Basil/Bay leaf etc
Wine, wine and more wine!

Shrink-wrapping peeled shallots
Note: Some herbs n veg like garlic, ginger, onions are common to most cuisines and so, I left them out of the table. This table is by no means exhaustive. Just giving you an idea. Traditional Chinese cuisine uses a lot of dry herbs but as my family is not into it, I seldom use them. But they get featured in CNY dishes. 

Some veggies an sauces keep well for weeks in the fridge. Some need to go into the the freezer. Other just need an airy corner. You can even vacuum-sealed if you do not plan to use them for some time.

Plan out your storage.

If you have done your preparation well, you can focus on cooking the dish. May it be the wok, the pot or the BBQ grill, you can focus on what you are doing there.

So take some time for mise en place. Think. Mentalise. Organise. Have everything in place. The cooking will be more enjoyable. You can hum a tune.

And if you are having guests, they won't be your victims.

I am sure more can be said about mise en place but let's leave that to another post. In fact, this post is already saying a lot for just this idea: prepare well!

That reminds me of our city-state. She always strive to be prepared.

And from a new Singaporean to the rest of you: Wishing you a Happy National day!

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  1. i came across your blog by chance and it is amazing not only because the good food that we can identify with but also the stories behind it and your beloved mother

    thank you for sharing with us


  2. Same here, I too stumbled upon your blog by chance.

    Your wonderful mother must have been such an incredible cook. If this is what you have reproduced from her inspiration, I cannot begin to imagine what her cooking was like.

    I love reading recipes from food blogs and must congratulate you on this fantastic presentation. There are so many dishes that I can resonate with and I cannot wait to try out those recipes.

    Thank you very much for sharing so much with us. Your mother's love has not been in vain. Strangers like us are priviledged to have access to all the cooking tips.

  3. Sedap - thank you for those encouraging words. You said it well: what this blog is essentially about. Indeed, she was an amazing cook and this blog is a part of her legacy. Only too glad to share her recipes and tips,

  4. Thank you for explaining the basics simply, clearly and in an encouraging manner. I am inspired to mise en place and start with 101 dishes for myself. When it is of a certain standard, I will serve them to my family who have been spoiled by my Mum's fabulous cooking!