Mindfulness kitchen

Many Asian people learn cooking from their families, but in these cultures, the learning style may be very different from what you expect.

If we went into the kitchen and asked our parents: “how many teaspoons of sugar do you add into that dish, and how hot do you make the pan?” we may not get the answer we want. Sometimes they will answer “I am not very sure. It depends. You should just pay attention, instead of asking”, or even “You ask too many question, stay out of the kitchen and stop bothering me!”

In my family's kitchen, when our parents were making soup, stir-fried dishes, and so on, they would add salt, soy sauce, sugar, pepper, then taste a little with a spoon, then add a little more of this or that. That was often how they measured the ingredients, so they really couldn't say what was the 'correct' amount.

We would just watch, standing next to them, or over by the door, we didn't ask how much of the seasoning they were adding to the wok or pot. We learned to watch their expression. We would see the satisfaction when they were nodding their heads or smiling.

My father is the best chef in our family. The process of shopping, cooking, and eating food is almost like a pilgrimage for him. He drives all the way to particular vegetable farms in the countryside or the mountains to buy vegetables, or to a particular harbor which is 100km from home to buy fish, or to the markets in his home town where he recognizes many faces like seeing old friends. He enjoys shopping for food, meeting people, and pursuing the highest standards.

I've watched my father cooking since I was a teenager. While he was cooking, we had to wash the dishes and prepare the table. If he realized there was no more salt or soy sauce, then we would run to the grocery store to get him some, so he could finish cooking the dinner.

My impression of him making dinner is: he is experimenting. He always concentrates when cooking; he pays attention to the heat. For example, for blanching shrimp or squid, the water should be about 80ºC, and you only cook for about 40 seconds, so the texture doesn't turn out rubbery.

He doesn't use recipes, and he never reads any cook books, but he wasn't a naturally a genius in the kitchen. If he experiences good food somewhere, then he will try many times to duplicate the same dishes. So he learns how to create the new flavors over and over again.

As well as learning from my father, I learned a lot from a woman who has run restaurants. She's my most experienced Chinese cooking teacher. She has been working in the profession more than half a century. The smart staff who work in her kitchen never ask her any questions. You just pay attention to what she is doing, what she is going to do next, and learn when to pass her some water or a plate, or to wipe the edge of a plate clean before serving.

So that is how we learn here. We don't ask. We are expected to learn from watching, smelling, assisting, and most important, we learn to recognize the chef's expression. It's their expression that shows us what is the right amount of salt, sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, chili – not a recipe book. When everything is right, we can recognize the satisfied expression on the chef's face.

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