Cooking Well Starts with Observing Well—Part One
What we can learn from J. Kenji López-Alt
J. Kenji López-Alt is undoubtedly one of the luminaries of the present culinary world. For years, he has taught us to cook well.
But let's leave Kenji to hang out in The Epestle's green room with a bowl of M&M's (with the brown ones removed) and a bottle of Vitamilk chilled to 52.7°F. We'll come back to him later.
What does it mean to cook well? I've been thinking on and off about this for years.
Does it just mean being a good cook? Perhaps. But I think there's a nuanced difference between the two.
"A good cook" is usually what people call you when they like the food you cook for them. To "cook well," on the other hand, may or may not involve that. Cooking well feels more personal to me. Like writing well or painting well, cooking well—I think—is to know what you want to eat, then figure out and master how to create it in the way you like it. If people like what you make, they may call you a good cook. If not, as long as you get what you want, I see that as cooking well.
Cooking well, therefore, is about intentionality. It's about having the clarity of goals—even when they don't align with others'—and the determination and skills to reach them. It's one of the most personally empowering things when it comes to cooking.
For convenience, let's call that which you like to cook well "X." And I'd argue that even before you decide you want to cook X well, you first need to be a good observer.
To make X the way you've determined X is supposed to be, you need to know first what X is. You may be rolling your eyes, sarcastically thanking me for shedding light on a brightly lit part of the parking lot, so let me explain a little more.
When I say knowing X, I mean really knowing it. There's got to be a clear picture of what X looks like. Can you describe X to someone who has never seen or tasted X? What is X's texture like? Its consistency? What colors do you see? What about the aroma? The taste? What is it you like about X in general? What is it you like about X made in the way that pleases you the most—the way you hope to make it?
I say "cooking well" is personal because we define X differently.
The way I like my X may not be the way you like your X. And sometimes, when I see people make their X in a way that’s different from how I would make it, I have to remind myself to give people the benefit of the doubt and look at the context. A friend of mine, for example, hates his pasta al dente. He makes absolutely sure the noodles in every pasta dish he makes have the texture of SpaghettiOs® because that’s what makes him happy. He knows exactly what he wants and how to achieve it every time. That, to me, is cooking well. In this case, you can see that the level of intentionality that goes into leaving the pasta to cook until it gets very, very soft is the same level of intentionality that goes into making sure the noodles aren't cooked beyond the al dente stage.
Regardless, people who cook well start by being good observers. Depending on where they are on their journey, they may or may not have the vocabulary to explain what's going on, the scientific insight to make sense of it, or the culinary and cultural context to fill in the existing gaps in their knowledge. But by golly, nothing escapes their senses.
I've interacted with many who think they're clueless about food and cooking when, in fact, they're not. Many of my readers belong in this group.
Scott R. wrote to ask me—apologizing for asking "a stupid question"— why the green onions in pad thai at his neighborhood Thai restaurant in Dallas "didn't have the same smell" as the green onions in pad thai he had in Thailand.
Scott's question was not stupid at all. He's a good observer. He noticed the “green onions” in the pad thai he had in Thailand smelled different. Scott didn’t know those are actually garlic chives (Chinese chives), which are used in pad thai in Thailand instead of the similar-looking (when cooked, that is) green onions that Thai restaurants in the West use in their place. But now he does, and just by observing well, Scott became much closer to being able to make pad thai the way he liked it than someone who hasn't even noticed this.
Natalie G., who sent me a cell phone photo of a squid stir-fry from a Thai restaurant, really wanted to make this dish at home. She tried her best to explain to me what the sauce tasted like. It was complex, sweet, a bit sour, and salty. It had something from the ocean—not sure what. Smoky. A bit thick. But not starchy thick, know what I mean? Thick, like it had tiny bits of things in it. Orange oil. Not very spicy, though. And it definitely wasn’t red curry paste.
Natalie noticed what this thing was and what it was not. Her list of what she observed helped me figure out that what she described was none other than nam phrik phao, Thai chile jam—a loose, flavor-packed paste made of chiles, shallots, garlic, tamarind, fish sauce, palm sugar, shrimp paste, and dried shrimp. And now that she's aware of its existence and versatility, there's no stopping her. I'd like to imagine that since our last email exchange, Natalie has been happily using nam phrik phao as the base of her stir-fry sauce for everything—squid, chicken, vegetables, anything she likes.
Then, back to the early 1990s, we’ve got Carol, a friend of my mother's, an American who had lived in Bangkok, who was about to move back to Pennsylvania. After ten years in Thailand, Carol was very excited to have finally learned to make her favorite dish: chicken red curry on khanom jin (rice vermicelli). Carol invited us to lunch at her home; she wanted to cook the dish for us before leaving.
Though proud of being able to make red curry from scratch, Carol was apologetic. The curry, she said, didn't have that familiar "tinge of bitterness," and the khanom jin she bought from the market, for some reason, didn't have "the tang." The noodles looked right, but they tasted like “they weren’t ripened,” she said.
We didn't say anything to discourage Carol. The lunch was good, and we just wanted to enjoy the time we had left with her. That said, it didn't take us long to see what had gone wrong. The red curry lacked the bitterness Carol hoped for because she had used peas instead of pea eggplants—tiny, round, pea-like, bitter eggplants that Thai cooks routinely add to red and green curries. Likewise, the rice vermicelli didn't have the familiar tang she looked for because she had bought the fresh, unfermented type instead of the "sourdough" type made with fermented batter.
Carol hated peas, so all these years in Thailand, she had avoided eating the "peas" in every curry (and, therefore, never discovered those weren’t peas). She put peas in her homemade curry only for our sake, not realizing it was pea eggplants she was supposed to use. She wasn't aware either that khanom jin came in more than one type, and that she had bought the type she liked less than the other.
However, just as Scott, who couldn't tell green onions and garlic chives apart, knew something was different in the pad thai he had in Thailand, Carol also knew something wasn't right even though she couldn't tell peas and pea eggplants apart. Both Scott and Carol were closer to their Xs than someone in the same situation who's oblivious to these things.
Meanwhile, we all have seen examples of what happens when people don't observe well.
Someone stating they're teaching people how to make Thai green curry the way it's made in Thailand, then throwing lime juice, ginger, and cilantro into the paste and serving the finished curry with another squeeze of lime and a handful of chopped peanuts, either lies about having experienced the normative version of green curry in Thailand or has failed to observe it well. Likewise, it's unlikely a certain café in Bangkok serving whipped cream with scones as part of their "authentic" British high tea knows about clotted cream.
A recipe calling itself a Pocky copycat that involves a butter- and/or egg-based cookie batter, piped or cut into long, thin sticks, baked, then dipped in melted chocolate? It makes you wonder if the developer has ever noticed that Pocky is chocolate-covered hard pretzel sticks, not long and slender butter—or even shortbread—cookies. And the many recipes claiming to be copycats of Starbucks' egg bites that have you bake beaten eggs in a mini muffin tin? That's a sure sign the developers can't tell the difference between the mini frittata bites their recipes produce and the silky sous vide egg bites that Starbucks sells. Some people are oblivious to these things—or they have failed to do their job well and hope that we are the ones being oblivious.
But let's get back to Kenji. In Part Two, we'll get him out of the green room.