The oversimplified grammar of cooking – only for beginners

Chefs/ already good cooks, pls give this a pass. This is a broad generalisation & there are many exceptions to it. The idea is to explain the logic of cooking & let first timers play around & experiment with food, without imposing DOs & DON’Ts.

Keep in mind – EVERYBODY CAN COOK….

….. you do not need to cook like someone else. You can create your own style if you understand this well – keep trying & experimenting with small quantities. You did not learn to be perfect from day 1 in everything that you are good at today – so don’t be disappointed/ give up after initial failures.

There are 3 basic aspects of good food that we enjoy – texture, flavor, taste & aftertaste

The text below talks of starters & mains. Cereals is another ball game.

Texture –

It’s about the food being soft/ hard, crunchy/ melt in the mouth, chewy/ brittle , juicy / dry etc. texture Is obtained obtained by either boiling, steaming, shallow frying, deep frying, slow cooking, grilling etc. texture of final dish also depends on how the ingredients have been cut – thin or thick, paste or chunks etc.

Deep frying is usually done for things that do not need to be softened much, but just to give an external texture. Slow cooking is usually done for something that needs to be softened / where the different ingredients have to mingle to interchange their flavors/ textures.

If one has lack of time, one can use a pressure cooker but the food cooked here is never as good as the slow cooked version. It can be good but the traditional method yields better results.

Marination of meats makes the cooking time faster as it tenderises the meat. It also incorporates the flavors of marinade in the meat. Non marinated meat takes more time to cook & incorporates slightly less flavors of marinade & more flavors of the meat itself. Two different approaches. Both r good in their own way.

Many people slit the meat / prick with a fork for the marinade to get better absorbed. Not mandatory though.

So the food that you are cooking (not meant for food that is eaten raw, like salads / fruit etc), has to go thru any of the above processes or maybe a combination of them to get to the ideal texture.

Ideal texture – It varies from culture to culture and place to place. eg. most of Indian food the meats are expected to be soft and not chewy.

Asian food has a tendency to retain the texture of the ingredients close to their original. Many times their meats are juicy & chewy – they seldom slow cook their meats.

Western grills attain the texture by marinating meats with different ingredients & varying the temperature & time of the grill. They also emphasise on the right cuts (shape, size of the meat piece & the portion of the animal from where it is cut).

Texture is also a function of the amount of oil or fat in the dish. It’s often easy & faster to use more oil / butter/ cheese & make the food tasty but that’s not always recommended for good health. Low oil cooking requires patience & skill acquired over a period of time, in addition to low oil recipes.

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Flavor

Flavour is attained in Indian food by a combination of adding spices and condiments like onion garlic ginger asafoetida Hing etc. leaves like dhania, curry leaves are used to flavor. Commonly used spices are jeera (cumin), coriander (dhania), clove (laung), cinnamon (dalchini), black pepper, cardamom (elaichi), dried red chilly, turmeric, mustard etc. different dishes are made in combination of the above. Some dishes use whole spices, others powdered & some others a combination of whole & powdered spices.

In Indian dishes made without onion & garlic, hing (asafoetida) is used as a substitute flavor ing agent. Kashmiri pandits use saunf (fennel) powder, ginger powder in addition to hing, to flavor their non onion garlic Curries. Eastern indians use jeera, mustard, etc to flavor their non onion non garlic Curries.

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Oils

In terms of the oils, ghee/ coconut oil/ mustard oil stand out as strong source of flavor in many Indian dishes. Any ‘white oil’ or olive oil almost does not give flavor to indian cooking. Usually the oils mentioned above are seldom used at the same time in the same dish coz they have contrasting flavors. However there might be different oils used in the same meal e.g. poori fried with ghee & meat curry cooked in mustard oil.

In Indian cooking, frying the masalas properly & not undercooked, that does all the difference. A easy way to understand that masalas are fried, is to see if the oil has separated from the rest of the masala.

Asian food flavouring is done predominantly by adding different sauces and use of condiments like garlic etc.

They also try to retain the flavours of the ingredients as much as possible. So a fish ball soup will have strong fish flavors – pls do not refer to the fake Chinese food served in india. I hv no POV on those.

Flavor in western foods are attained by the sauces, herbs, other major ingredients of the dish, like cheese etc.

Taste & aftertaste

5 major taste areas are – salty, sweet, bitter, sour, hot (chilly)

Sources of each of them are as follows:

Salty – table salt, rock salt etc

Sweet – sugar, jaggery, honey etc. putting a large quantity of onion in a dish makes it sweetish, without adding any other sweet, adding fruits also add to sweetness.

Bitter – karela, neem leaves, cocoa

Sour – yoghurt, tomato, kokum, tamarind, vinegar etc.

Hot – chilly, pepper etc.

Each dish has a combination of 2-4 of these above tastes. The lower the number of taste areas in a dish, the more difficult it is to make it taste good. Did you notice that any sweet with a tinge of salt tastes better than the one that is unidirectionally sweet. Or a tinge of bitter & salt dramatically transforms an ordinary chocolate to extraordinary

General tips-

In general it’s a good idea to add boiled water in a curry rather than cold water.

Do not add all the salt at once. It’s better to add less, taste & add more.

In case the gravy has excess salt, put a raw potato in the gravy. It will soak in salt. If there is an option to add tomatoes / yoghurt / lemon, adding that also may balance the extra salt. Alternately add boiling water & cook on high heat – u will have to eat this as a thin gravy dish.

Happy to take questions. Pls write in ….

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