When conversation turns to cooking, I sometimes joke to my friends that I learnt all I know about cooking from watching food-related TV shows. All through school and university, as much as I was an outdoors kid, and as much as I was a diligent student, I watched so much TV. As a teenager, I proudly told people that I just completed my homework during ad breaks, such was my dedication to various programs.
But, of course, it’s not true. At least, it’s not all true. Yes, celebrity chefs and food gurus taught me how to make béchamel sauce, how to cook crepes, and which spices work best together; but they can’t take all the credit for my culinary know-how. As is probably the case for a lot of people, I learnt most of what I know about the fundamentals of cooking from my mum.
Of course, this was always obvious to me. Who else would I learn from? Other relatives, yes, and certain friends, but I grew up watching her cook, eating her food, and asking her questions. But I think it’s only since moving out (about half a year ago), and having to cook more often, that I’ve become so much more aware of the things I learnt from her. And, as with any recurrent thought, I feel a need to write about this in order to release it from the mental roundabout in the centre of my mind.
Things I have learnt from my mum about food and cooking:
Don’t be afraid of hot surfaces, but know when not to touch something directly: As a kid, I used to be afraid of touching saucepan lids (and the steam released when opening them), and of taking hot bowls/containers out of the microwave. Of course, these days, those things don’t faze me. Sometimes I accidentally touch hot pans, and just shrug it off.
How to make the most of scraps and left-overs AKA it’s ok to throw things out, but if it can be salvaged, it will be salvaged: This might also explain my interest in being experimental with food combinations. Sure, the popular trend toward unusual food pairings probably has something to do with it, but my mum’s thinking is more practical for everyday eating.
You don’t always need salt: As far as I remember, my mum was always quite reserved with her use of salt, preferring other seasonings instead. Sometimes eating and tasting something as it is, unseasoned, is good too.
It is possible to clean as you cook: This can be important for staying organised and ensuring you don’t run out of bench space (or spoons).
How to make a simple sauce that will work with almost any stir fry: soy sauce, fish sauce, corn flour; maybe oyster sauce and other things if you have them.
Kitchen scissors are a necessity: This might seem like an odd thing for some people, but I’ve learnt that a good pair of kitchen scissors can often substitute a knife and chopping board (which is particularly good for people like me who don’t like washing up).
The best (and safest) way to cut tomatoes, carrots, onions, capsicum, etc, etc: all to do with making sure the knife doesn’t slip, and you don’t accidentally cut your fingers. She also taught me efficient ways to dice, julienne, and roughly chop vegetables. I was helping with mise en place before I even knew what that was (TV taught me that phrase).
How to segment apples/pears/whatever and peel their skin using a small knife: Somehow, apples and pears seem to taste better if someone has cut them up for you (or if you cut them up yourself)
Good meals don’t have to be fancy: Of all the things that my mum cooks, among my favourite dishes are a simple broccoli and mushroom stir fry, a tofu and mince dish, and marinated/stewed pork belly (although the pork belly dish always seemed kind of complex to me…)
Allow yourself enough time to prepare a dish i.e. know when to start cooking: There’s a good reason why some days she started preparing lunch (or dinner) while we were just finishing breakfast. (When I was really young, this confused me, but it made more sense as I got older.)
How to fix a cake batter that’s a bit too dry or a bit too wet: She baked a lot (still does) and often “winged it” with recipes, so she sometimes needed to adjust the consistency of the batter at the end, just before putting it in the tin and into the oven. She also taught me that I don’t always have to follow the sugar and butter measurements stated in other people’s recipes, as they may be too sweet or too greasy. (I tend not to compromise the butter/oil too much, but sugar I’ll often reduce.)
There’s undoubtedly a lot more that I learnt from her – maybe a lot that I’ve learnt subconsciously and don’t even realise – but I think this is a decent enough list for now. (The list is undoubtedly still growing too…)
Sure, my mum taught me a lot of general life skills/lessons too, but they (whoever they are) say that food is life (and food is love), and I don’t know how long I’d survive on my own if I hadn’t learnt these things from her.