Cooking without a Recipe

Monday, February 13, 2012

Fried Sea Bass - Thai style. Perhaps I won't call this a 101 dish but to Thais,
fried fish with some condiments is a basic dish.
I have always been keen on eating at home.

There is something special about the family gathering around the dining table. I feel that a home is less than one if the kitchen and dining table is not used regularly. At least I grew up in one where the home centered around them.  

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I started learning to cook soon after I started working as I always wanted to recreate some of the dishes I grew up with. When the kids came, my Mum came down from PJ to stay with us. It became less necessary for me to be in the kitchen. Mum was providing the daily spread. We could look forward to returning home to dinner everyday. Sometimes I will call her to ask what's for dinner. She will always say a phrase in Cantonese which rhymes. "I won't let you know and will let your heart keep wondering."

After my Mum passed away, for a while, we were quite at a lost as to our daily meals. We tried "tingkat" home delivery meals. They sent dinner in these stacked containers. You have to eat whatever is delivered to you. The food was often bland and rather tasteless. After two weeks of trying to appreciate these meals, one evening, we just could not carry on. Not even after we have said grace! I told my wife to cancel the arrangements.

That was when I made a new resolution to resume home cooking.
Why should I rely on someone else to cook for us when with a bit of extra effort, we could have home meals regularly again? It is a family tradition which we decided needs to be kept alive. If it is our table, then we should eat what we enjoy.

A variation - Green Curry Pork
I pause to say that this does not mean that we are not grateful. I can eat anything (ok, within reasonable limits) that is being offered when I am at events or visiting a home. In my profession, I attend a lot of funeral wakes, weddings, church events (where every member wants their pastor to try their home-cooked fare!) and visit members homes and so on. I say grace and appreciate every bit of whatever that is offered!

The sanctuary of my home is something else altogether. Here, regularly, we want something home-cooked. We end the day with dishes we like. It may not be better than food served outside. But still, it is from our own kitchen. And trust me, if you cook long enough,  the dishes will taste better.

It wasn't easy to get my kitchen humming again.

There was the problem of time. It also involves not just cooking, but marketing as well. And the freezer is always too small. There were some dishes which turned out so badly that I felt like I would not cook again. I often make this mistake - and still do occasionally - of adding too many ingredients and doing something crazy. We all have those moments when we engage our hands before engaging our minds. Recently I fried a piece of gorgeous threadfin fish (ikan kurau). It went in whole and left the wok naked, leaving much of the skin behind. I forgot and used a hot aluminium wok to fry it!

And there were always the taste memories of what Mum cooked. Somehow, my dishes didn't measure up.

I kept pressing on. I was hungry to learn and will watch AFC shows and read cookbooks. I also embarked on learning Western cuisine. As for this cuisine, I do not have taste memories of Mum's dishes to compete with as she hardly cooked anything Western. And with more opportunities to cook and a gathering experience from trying out different cuisines and food types, I became more relaxed and confident in the kitchen.    

As I looked back, it was a journey worth taking. And as I improve, I found I was able to recreate some of Mum's signature dishes. I suppose this progress finally (and accidentally) led to this blog. When I recreated her Prawn Noodles and a few weeks later her Hakka YTF, I finally felt that I was - even if for selected dishes and fleeting moments - walking in her shoes. 

However, my Mum was best when she had to cook "without recipes". This was where she showed her versatility. Sometimes, we needed dinner and it was unplanned. She will cook a dish from whatever was in the fridge. Because of this, her dishes varied and unless I took photos- which I seldom did then - I can't even recall some of them. Some only appeared once and never again.

And here I want to encourage home cooks to learn to do the same. Cook without recipes.

Recipes act as a guide at best. There are so many variables so that you can't duplicate the dish exactly. At best, you approximate. Learn instead, to be guided by your own sense of taste and experiment with flavour combination. This often requires some imagination. This is not going to come to you immediately. Patiently, build up your experience and palate. As always, this will come more naturally or easily to some. Some will have a longer learning curve. But if you are always relying on recipes, you will not be able to break out of that. Your learning curve has not even begun.

Fried Ikan Selar
Recipes are like GPS. There are often helpful to get you to your destination. But over-rely on it, and you will cease to think or map out your own sense of direction. After a while, without GPS, you become a stranger in your own city.

That is the same problem with cooking entirely from recipes. We use the ingredients without asking why and we never seek to understand the essence of the dish. The experience with the dish remains contained within itself, locked in its own recipe, and you will never try to do something else from it.    

If you develop this confidence and versatility to go beyond fixed recipes, it will make you a better home cook. Note that some ingredients are seasonal and at a visit to the market, you may be inspired with some new types of veg. If you are cooking a dish and there is a missing ingredient, don't panic - improvise.

And best of all, you keep your family wondering what's for dinner. You can surprise them. If you vary your daily dishes, it will definitely make dinner more interesting. Even a great dish cannot be served too often. And it is always fun to cook something new or to variate something familiar. You will encounter more 'failures' (which often means that it is not as good as you want it to be), but you will learn from it.

I have blogged some CF&G dishes here and also here where I had to cook with what we had when we were overseas. Here are a few more dishes and ideas to guide or inspire you. They are great for your daily dinners, easy to make and use of regular ingredients which can give you confidence and ideas for other dishes.

Fried Fish with Something

Making the Bango Sauce
Fried Ikan Selar topped with Sauce
As a child, I grew up eating fried Kembung or Ikan Selar as are cheap and easy to cook. They store well in the freezer. You should know how to tell the fresh ones. Get the fish monger to clean them for you. Unless you like the bitter internal parts (like Jap cuisine), all these should be cleaned out and the fish scaled. Shallow fry them for about 5 minutes on each side. Set aside. After this, do the sauce and garnish with whatever is in the fridge. 

I made this recently. Kecap Manis (black sweet sauce and I like the Bango brand) goes very well with chilli paste. Fry some sliced onions and add this twin combination. Add a bit of soy sauce to taste. I had some leftover green chillies and I threw them in too. Garnish the fried fish with the sauce and some coriander leaves or spring onions. Some white pepper if you like.

I mangled this Garoupa. It tasted ok though
You will know that there are many different types of sauce which you can make. Sambal, black bean sauce, Marmite (!)...basically whatever you fancy. I don't think chocolate sauce or peanut butter will work though.
Cod fish with something
Sea Bass with something

Stir-fry Chicken with Something 

Stir fry Chicken in Oyster Sauce
This type of dish appears in many local homes here. Stir-fry Chicken in oyster Sauce is a true 101 dish which just about anyone can do. Sliced ginger, garlic, chopped chicken, oyster sauce, sesame sauce, thick black sauce, soy sauce, Chinese wine etc. Half an hour or 45 minutes in the wok will work. If you want more sauce you can add some water or stock. Then you add spring onions. Add sliced carrots or large green pepper if you plan for this to be a one-dish meal. This dish is also good for the claypot. Great for presentation and it keeps the food warm longer.

My good neighbour has a pot of Basil leaves which I covet. When I need them, she has given permission for us to use them. And so, Basil Chicken was a no-brainer version which I do once in a while. This means it will go the Thai direction. Fish sauce instead of soy sauce. Pound the coriander roots and stems to add a bittery grounded flavour to the dish. Add a bit of palm sugar.  Add the basil leaves just before the dish is served. Yum.

This Basil flavoured chicken rocks
You can also go the Indonesian direction. Use Kecap Manis etc.Or Nonya. Use Gula Melaka for a deep caramelized flavour. Goes well with chilli too.
You can do this in many different ways.

Fried Eggs with Something

Fried eggs is of course easy to do. Scrambled, sunny side or omelette, eggs are friends on days when your fridge looks bare or someone unexpected is joining in for dinner. 

Again you can add soy sauce and pepper, bango it, add veg to the base of the plate etc. You can whip it for an omelet. Go the Thai way and add tapioca flour, some lime juice and fish sauce. Flour will crisp up the omelet. 

You have leftover Chinese sausage? Easy. Scramble your eggs with them.

Fried Beef with Something
This is also very easy to do. Good beef is widely available these days. The ones from NZ are the cheapest and good too. Wet markets sometimes sell them too. Sliced flank beef cooks easily and quickly in the wok. Don't add any water please. The sauces you use are watery enough. A quick fry will do so that the beef juices and flavour remain in the meat.

Again, there are many things to variate this dish with. Many kinds of root veg, green veg etc. Many kinds of sauces you can use. Black pepper if you like.

Fried Veg with something

Here in S'pore, we are blessed with so many types of leafy greens. If you plan ahead, you can have a different one everyday for a whole month. Chye Sim and spinach is great but don't be stuck with that. I sometimes see "anonymous" veg in the wet market and buy them home to try. It's fun. If it turned out disastrous, don't serve your family and they will never know.

I can go on and on. But you should be getting some ideas.

Come on, think out your own recipes and put those recipes sheets aside for a change.

Try and you will be surprised how much you will learn about cooking!

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  1. While all of us enjoy the occasional dining out, nothing beats home-cooked food. Do you think you could share with us more homey dishes that is easy to prepare, can be prepared in advance and always a comfort to eat over and over again? Thank you!

  2. Simply sedap - yes, quite a few have asked about these. Will be mindful to blog more of e simpler and regular dishes.

  3. Thank you for sharing.

    With some planning, it's really possible to put tasty food on the dining table, and I hope you will inspire others to do likewise. We spend too much time eating outside at hawker centres and restaurants.

  4. Hi found your blog through surfing for Charsiew!
    Just wondering do you have a solid recipe for LOR MEE?
    I am a Singapore housewife in Texas, USA and my husband keep requesting for LOR MEE but I just cannot find much information on this dish!

    Thanks in advance :)

  5. Lor Mee..hmmm..the sauce is basically prawn or fish stock, then dark sauce, sugar, soy sauce, thickening flour and egg white...then garnish with raw chopped garlic in white venegar sauce, fried fish meat, boiled egg and of course, yellow noodles etc. Try it out and I am sure yr hubby will be happy with it. Can add some lard if u wish. If I get round to cooking it, will blog but doubt I will as it is not a family favourite