In an ideal world, everyone would grow up in a home with parents and grandparents cooking healthy and wholesome meals in the kitchen on a daily basis. Younger children might be tasked with mixing basic ingredients. Older children might be tasked with chopping fruit and vegetables. They take on bigger and bigger responsibilities until one day, they’re teaching their own children how to cook.
Most people today do not live with that privilege. Notwithstanding those living in extreme poverty, even those with financial means to cook well are hardly cooking. Is lack of time a factor? Sure. Too many restaurant and fast food options? Certainly. However, these factors cannot explain why so many still find themselves staring blankly at another chicken breast and bag of carrots in their grocery store cart on a weekly basis, or scrolling overwhelmed through their Pinterest feed, unable to commit to a single recipe.
There’s something else at the heart of this issue that no one seems to be talking about, and it’s culinary culture.
My Personal Cooking Background
My mother is a good, but self-proclaimed reluctant cook. Before having children, there was a point where she was dining out on a daily basis to sustain her career-driven lifestyle. When we finally moved to suburban Canada and away from the culinary conveniences of Taiwan, she was forced to roll up her sleeves and slowly but surely teach herself recipes from friends, cookbooks and Japanese culinary shows until we had a pretty happy weeknight rotation.
My father is a very specific and nostalgic cook. While he typically defers to my mother in the kitchen for efficiency’s sake, occasionally, he will be inspired to recreate very elaborate traditional Chinese dishes, particularly those that remind him of food served at his childhood family gatherings. We follow his lead during all Chinese holidays. His other, completely unrelated specialty is the “Continental Breakfast”. After completing a hospitality internship in Los Angeles back in the early 80’s, he developed an incredibly high standard for pancakes, scrambled eggs, and fruit platters. He passed this meticulous knowledge onto his children and we simply accepted it as part of Western culture.
I share this information about my parents to highlight two things: one, that there was never a default regime in our house, and two, that my family really prioritized culinary education and exploration. This unique combination allowed me to subconsciously and naturally juxtapose cuisines against each other, and recognize each cooking style as a separate, distinct process. When my father announced on a Saturday morning that we were going “Full Continental”, we would take great care to ensure that only the right jams and butters were allowed on the table, served at the right temperature. When my mother struggled and triumphed in making her third batch of cinnamon apple muffins for my sister’s kindergarten bake sale, we collectively recognized that it was a lesson on “Canadian baking” that she had checked off her list.
When you decide to make maple-glazed salmon with a side salad and roasted potatoes, the process should do more for you than provide a recommended daily intake of protein and vegetables. Once you begin to see this dish as something rooted in Canadian culture, when you deliberately and purposefully chose a piece of Pacific salmon, when you associate the maple syrup with the Quebecois trees they came from, and see the potato as being a part of an Irish tradition that flourished particularly well in the red dirt of Prince Edward Island—it will change your relationship with the food you are making.
Cooking should be thoughtful and inspirational, and I think a cultural approach can definitely help kick start the process.
Learn to Cook in Seven Steps
1. Choose a culinary point of view. Whether it’s Spanish, Chinese, Thai, or French—start with a cooking style you know you enjoy wholeheartedly, and have a basic understanding of. It helps, but certainly does not have to be cuisine associated with where you grew up. As much as we may loathe to admit it, the fact that your mother always used a rice cooker, made her own garam masala, or put sour cream on everything, will affect how you go about your adult life. And for those of you uninspired by the cuisine you had growing up, draw inspiration from a recent trip or even your best friend’s mother’s kitchen instead. Today, my kitchen is mostly Italian because I am passionate about the Mediterranean diet and identify with the simple, olive oil-drizzled lifestyle. It didn’t happen overnight, but the more I delve into Italian culture, the more I become a better Italian cook.
2. Find a few seasoned authors in that style who inspire you. Hold yourself accountable to a guidebook of sorts on this journey to honing your culinary style. For example, if you’re taking the Italian route, Lidia Bastianich’s style is classic and unfaltering, but if you find yourself liking Rocco DiSpirito’s healthy, modern Italian recipes more, well, congratulations, you’re just becoming more niche. If you do not have any celebrity chef influences, you can’t go wrong with Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child (and read My Life in France while you’re at it).
3. Stock your fridge and pantry appropriately. You can’t enjoy cooking if it feels like a hassle. If you’re going to focus on Latin cuisine, stock up on good chili powder, cumin and oregano in your pantry and make sure you always have fresh cilantro, tomatoes, avocados, jalapeños, and a great hot sauce in your fridge. If you always have a can of evaporated or condensed milk, you’ll always only be just a few steps away from making a great Latin custard or flan. When I’m in a Korean mood, I always have a giant jar of kimchi in the fridge, and I pump out a week’s worth of side dishes that could accompany any Korean dish. Do your research and get excited about quality Spanish saffron or Japanese miso paste.
4. Plan restaurant visits around that culinary style. You will have to dine out regularly to experience what is really good. Make a conscious effort over the next few months to deliberately choose restaurants in you culinary style if possible, and really analyze why their ingredients work well together and how you can improve your own cooking to replicate that taste. You can also use this experience to identify and judge for yourself whether you think something is or isn’t authentic.
5. Invest in a good chef’s knife. You can cook well without a $500 cast iron skillet, but you cannot cook a proper meal with a bad knife. I had a good friend of mine tell me that she hated cooking because it hurt her hand. I thought it was strange until she showed me the flimsy little pairing knife that was (literally) cramping her style. There’s no need to shell out more than $30-$50 dollars on a good chef’s knife, and your entire cooking experience will change for the better. And please remember to sharpen it regularly.
6. Stick to a realistic plan. If you don’t know how to cook pasta properly (yet), do not attempt to make fresh pasta from scratch. If you set the bar too high, you will fail and feel like you’ll never be able to do anything. Plan to make something new every few days or every week, and don’t try to schedule yourself a four-hour cooking session when you know you’re going to be tired and hungry after a long day of work. Look forward instead to a half-day of reading and cooking on a Sunday after you’ve had a nice breakfast.
7. Have a dinner party. If you set a clear date for an event, you will hold yourself accountable to actually work towards your goal, and you will also enjoy the process of planning for a special evening. With the entire dinner in mind rather than just a dish, it’ll force you to think about the best serving vessels and utensils for your culinary style, the best beverage pairings to incorporate, and even the best time to eat at. Thinking about all these aspects of the dining experience will bring you a much richer understanding of the culinary culture you are trying to tap into.
I can’t guarantee that you will be an amazing cook (I’m certainly far from it just yet). But I do hope that this has inspired you to think about your cooking process just a little differently.