What is a Recipe, Really?

Navneet Alang wrote . . . . . . . . .

Lately, it’s felt a bit like I am pouring my anxiety into every pan I own. From long-simmering bolognese or experiments like chickpea-flour pancakes to the familiarity of chili omelets or Punjabi cuisine, I have been cooking up a veritable storm these past few weeks. Clearly, I am not alone. To the contrary, like half the people I know, and likely half the people you know too, I have taken to cooking more during this, the era of COVID-19.

Of course, this being 2020, we are not just cooking; we are also posting what we make and eat to Instagram or other platforms. Denied the opportunity to gather around a table, it feels like we have committed to a virtual communal experience as substitute.

The reasons for turning to cooking in a time like this are obvious. With restaurant dining rooms still largely closed, takeout a source of worry (even if it’s irrational), and few other places to go, it makes sense that people are spending time in their kitchens. Fear and worry about the virus are everywhere, and despite how heartening it is to see the reckoning with police violence and anti-Black racism that activists have pushed into the national consciousness, it has somehow only added to that oft-repeated sentiment these days that these are unprecedented times.

Cooking, by contrast, is at least familiar, or even an act of care. More than that, following a recipe can be ritualistic, the practice of repeating established, sequential steps a comfort when the world feels uncertain. That’s the pleasure of cooking sometimes: not just that you’re creating sustenance, but that you get the satisfaction of “first this, then that.” Recipes can feel like received wisdom or repositories of knowledge, precious texts that not only promise the pleasure of something delicious or the gratification of creating something, but also a link to history and a broader culinary and cultural world. There is a reason recipes are passed down from generation to generation. As sirens wail, and news about the virus blares from every screen, it can feel affirming to use food to connect with both a culinary past and the culture around you. And if cooking itself isn’t exactly an act of faith, it is perhaps akin to what in Sikhism is called seva — the service you perform to both God and others in pursuit of a faithful life.

I’m not sure, but maybe this is why, especially these days, underneath almost every food thing I post or see posted, there is a nearly universal reaction: “recipe?” As images of comforting or novel food appear on our screens, it seems we all want a script to follow to recreate them for ourselves.

It’s an understandable impulse. Recipes are helpful guides, a map to uncharted territory, particularly for people who find cooking intimidating or just unfamiliar. Yet, as logical as that is, the recipe is also an ideal that walks a fine line between being familiar and, well, boring. For some, recipes are like scripture, and the cook a literalist devotee.

In some Christian traditions, the Bible is thought of as the literal word of God. In Sikhism, too, the holy Guru Granth Sahib book is thought of as the final representative of God on Earth. You surely know people who treat recipes in a similar way: as coherent, literal wholes to be followed, obeyed, passed down, followed to the letter, even treated with a sort of reverence. The recipe is a thing to be followed precisely, and stands as something to be judged as it is. And like scripture, recipes are strict sets of instructions that can, like scripture, become nearly unassailable.

Yes, there are clearly times — most obviously in baking, but also in deliberately minimalist, technique-driven dishes like cacio e pepe, or a French omelet — when following the letter of a recipe is quite necessary because riffing on it will change the basic character of the dish.

But an orthodox take on food can end up misrepresenting what a recipe can be. Because the other, arguably more interesting sense of cooking is less about scriptural rigor than what you might call intertextuality — that is, about how recipes inform one another. So many of the things we cook are actually composed of parts that are, if not exactly interchangeable, then at least analogous, related.

An intertextual approach to food is about treating cooking as units to be deployed in different ways: a caramelized base to add flavor, a technique or ingredient to add umami, a herb or pickle to add a bright or spicy high note. It is the idea of taste as a kind of melody — the bass notes of umami, the highs of acid or heat or bitterness, the midrange of earthiness — but also of cooking as a skill that emerges from how you put bits of technique and ingredients together. It’s sort of the difference between a cookbook as a collection of recipes, or something like Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which the Atlantic accurately described as more like “a cooking philosophy” than a step-by-step guide.

To think of a recipe as an intertext of parts is especially useful now when so many people are either stuck at home or forced to adapt how and what they eat, in part around what they can actually get. If instead of process, a recipe is thought of as something that evinces a logic, then it won’t inform you just how to make one dish, but rather how to cook more generally.

Consider, say, a rich Italian meat sauce, or a classic North Indian curry. They each start out with onions and garlic in fat, caramelized to bring out sweetness and depth, then the same process is repeated with tomatoes. Some vegetables, like a soffritto, or spices, like the North Indian trinity of turmeric, cumin, and coriander, round out flavor, and then time helps them develop complexity. After the main body is added — ground beef, hunks of chicken thigh — some cream might be added for richness, and bright basil or cilantro each brighten the dish.

Sure, you could follow a recipe for those things: first this, then that. But those dishes are perhaps better thought of as templates for a way to approach food, building blocks of technique and flavor that mean dishes can be put together in both expected and unorthodox ways. And as we find ourselves hemmed in, a scriptural approach to recipes can be unnecessarily limiting. Absolutely, if you have two kids underfoot who are driving you crazy, or the stress of, you know, living through a global pandemic is dragging you down, follow that recipe, make that boxed mac and cheese. But if you feel like a stretch, or even if you’re just bored: I mean, it occasionally feels like the end of the world out there. Live a little — allow yourself the freedom of a little blasphemy.

Source: Eater

Cooking Projects to Keep You Busy and Extremely Well Fed

Squash au Vin

Slow-Cooked Chicken Stew with Kale

Pork Wontons With Sesame Sauce

Chicken Braised in Lime and Peanut Sauce

French Onion Beef Noodle Soup

Black Sesame Mochi Cake With Black Sesame Caramel

Get the recipes at Bon Appetit . . . . .

How to Make Thai Chicken Rice

Susan Jung wrote . . . . . . . . .

Thai chicken rice, or khao man gai, is similar to Hainan chicken rice in that it’s a one-dish meal: chicken, rice and a clear broth made from the bones of the bird. The big difference is in the accompanying dipping sauce. Hainan chicken rice is served with a trio of sauces: ginger, chilli and sweetened soy sauce. Khao man gai comes with only one, which is tangy and on the edge of being too spicy.

In Thailand, khao man gai shops display a row of cooked chickens on hooks, all ready to be taken down and cut into pieces. Like Hainan chicken rice, the chicken is served at room temperature, not hot.

The quality of the chicken is of the utmost importance. Use a fresh chicken, because frozen birds have flabby, tasteless meat. And don’t buy a large chicken, or it will take too long to cook.

This recipe uses a different technique to the one used at restaurants, where the birds are cooked whole. Here, the chicken is cut up and the carcass and bony parts are simmered to make a broth that is used to cook the rice. The thighs, breasts and wings are placed on top of the rice in the rice cooker to add flavour to the grains.

Thai yellow bean sauce, also called soybean paste, comes in bottles – some with a lot of solids and others with most of the fermented soybeans strained out; either is fine. Kecap manis, or Indonesian sweetened soy sauce, can be substituted for the Thai sweet soy sauce.


350 grams long-grain rice
70 grams glutinous rice
2 pandan leaves
fine sea salt, as necessary
1 fresh chicken, about 1.2kg
40 gram chunk of peeled ginger
60 grams spring onions
2 garlic cloves, peeled
250 grams daikon (Japanese white radish), peeled
250 grams carrot, peeled
2 Asian cucumbers, sliced
fresh coriander sprigs

Nam Jim Khao Man Gai Dipping Sauce:

20 grams palm sugar
30 gram chunk of peeled ginger
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled
10 grams fresh coriander roots
15-20 grams red bird’s-eye chillies
70 grams yellow bean sauce
10 grams Thai sweet soy sauce or kecap manis
10 ml-15ml vinegar
5 ml fresh lime juice


  1. Put the long-grain and glutinous rice in a bowl and wash in several changes of water, until the water is almost clear. Drain through a fine-mesh colander shaking off as much water as possible. Leave to air-dry, occasionally stirring the rice, while preparing the other ingredients.
  2. Separate the chicken into parts. Pull out the lumps of fat from the cavity and put them in a small pan. Chop off the neck as close as possible to the body, then remove the legs (thigh and drumstick) and wings. Use kitchen shears to cut off the bone-in breasts in one piece. Cut off the tail and place in the pan with the fat. Cut off the wing tips.
  3. Make the broth. Put the bony pieces – neck (head discarded, if you like), carcass and wing tips – in a pan. Lightly crush the ginger with the side of a cleaver or a sturdy chef’s knife. Put the ginger, spring onions and garlic cloves in the pan and add 2.25 litres of water and 10 grams of salt. Bring to a boil over a high flame, partially cover the pan with the lid, then lower the flame and simmer for 45 minutes.
  4. Render the chicken fat. Add about 30ml of water to the pan holding the fat and tail. Place the pan over a medium-low flame. When the water starts to simmer, lower the flame and cook until the fat liquefies. Remove the solids from the pan.
  5. Make the sauce. Roughly chop the palm sugar, ginger, garlic, coriander roots and chillies then put them in a food processor or blender (or use an immersion blender). Chop the ingredients to a rough paste, then add the yellow bean sauce, sweet soy sauce, vinegar and lime juice. Blend to a rough purée then taste for seasonings and correct, if necessary. Add about 25ml of hot water (or some of the simmering chicken broth) to thin out the ingredients to a dipping sauce consistency.
  6. Pour 25 grams of the rendered chicken fat into a skillet and heat over a medium flame. Add the rice and 1½ tsp of salt. Stir constantly until the rice grains are coated with the fat, then transfer to a rice cooker. Cut the pandan leaves into 10cm lengths, tie them into a knot and add them to the rice. Add 520ml of the chicken broth to the rice cooker.
  7. Place the whole chicken legs, the whole bone-in breast and the wings into the rice cooker, on top of the rice. Turn it on and let the ingredients steam until done.
  8. Cut the daikon and carrot into two-bite chunks and add them to the remaining chicken broth. Simmer until tender.
  9. When the rice and chicken are done, remove the chicken from the cooker, then close the lid so the rice stays hot. Allow the chicken to cool for about 10 minutes. Separate the breast meat from the bone and slice against the grain. Separate the drumstick from the thigh, then remove the bones and slice the meat. Separate the drumette from the middle joint of the wing.
  10. Put some of the rice in a rice bowl, packing it in gently. Invert a dinner plate over the rice bowl then hold the two tightly together and flip them over. Lift off the rice bowl so there’s a mound of rice on the plate. Repeat with another three plates.
  11. Divide the chicken and sliced cucumber between the plates.
  12. Taste the chicken soup and add salt, if necessary. Stir several fresh coriander sprigs into the soup before ladling it into the bowls and serving with the chicken and rice.

Source: SCMP

Recipes from the Garden of Contentment – a Chinese Gastronomic Guide from 1792

Susan Jung wrote . . . . . . . . .

Recipes from the Garden of Contentment (2018) is the first bilingual (Chinese and English) edition of Suiyuan Shidan (1792), a work on gastronomy by Qing dynasty poet and scholar Yuan Mei. However, its translator, Sean J.S. Chen, is neither a classic Chinese scholar nor a chef in a high-end Chinese restaurant looking for inspiration; rather, his field is science and engineering.

A “research scientist and algorithms dev­eloper for computer-assisted minimally invasive surgery”, Chinese-Canadian Chen started translating Yuan’s work after failing to find a transla­tion of it, and published his efforts on his blog, Way of the Eating.

Translating the book wasn’t easy, Chen writes. “Classical Chinese is a written language of its own, quite different from modern written Chinese that is used today in daily life. For the untrained reader, Classical Chinese appears as a disconti­nuous mask of characters glommed together on a grid typically without any punctuation to guide the reader. Reading through the Suiyuan Shidan in Classical Chinese brought back those feelings of inadequacy I felt while grinding through the Middle English version of The Canterbury Tales in university.”

It wasn’t just the translations that troubled Chen – he also found that there were different versions of Suiyuan Shidan. For an accurate translation, he needed access to the original text, and found two copies of the 1792 volume – one at the Harvard-Yenching Library, the other at Princeton University Library.

Yuan wasn’t a cook – his household staff included a chef (and several concu­bines). But as a food lover, he had strong opinions about recipes, as well as the preparation of ingredients. In the chapter “Essential Knowledge”, he states, “It is better to use more of an expensive ingredient in a dish and less of the inexpensive ones. If too much of an ingredient is pan-fried or stir-fried at the same time, there would be insufficient heat to cook them through; meats done this way are especially tough […] If one asks, ‘What if there isn’t enough to eat?’ I say, ‘If you’re not full after you’ve finished what’s there, just cook some more.’”

The chapter titled “Objectionables” is especially entertaining, and Chen’s annotations are just as opinionated. “What are ‘meals for the ears’?” reads the original text. “Meals for the ears exist only for bolstering name and reputation. By boasting the names of expensive and coveted ingredients, flaunting one’s wealth to esteemed guests, such meals tease one’s ears but confer no satisfaction to one’s tongue.”

Chen adds, “Sadly, dishes for the ears, or ‘ear meals’, are a mainstay of gastronomy, be it Eastern or Western cuisine. Foie gras is fantastic, but if a restaurant serves it too thin (less than five millimetres thick) just to be able to mention it in a dish, that’s an ear meal. White truffle oil (usually containing no truffle shavings whatsoever) in your pasta? Ear meal. ‘Kobe beef’ hamburgers? Yet another ear meal.”

The recipes are brief, leaving out a lot of detail. The recipe for mutton soup, for instance, reads, “Take some cooked mutton and cut it into small pieces, about the size of dice. Braise the meat in chicken broth. Add diced bamboo shoots, diced shiitake mushrooms, diced mountain yam, and then braise until done.” The recipe for radish cooked in lard reads, “Stir-fry the radishes in rendered lard, then add dried shrimp and braise them until completely done. When one is about to plate the dish, add chopped green onions. The radishes should be translucent and red like amber.”

Other recipes include roasted suckling pig, red cooked pork, white cut chicken, smoked eggs, eight treasure tofu and homestyle pan-fried fish.

Source: SCMP

7 Rules for a Better Rice Bowl

Sho Spaeth wrote . . . . . . . . .

It may sound silly to put it this way, but before grain bowls became a thing, grain bowls were already a thing. Wherever people cooked whole grains and ate them, they likely put them in a bowl and put tasty stuff on top, both because it was delicious and because it was convenient. (Yes, even in America, where grain bowls are currently a “thing”!)

But bowls of rice with stuff thrown on top are only delicious if you give them enough thought and consideration. And while there are exceptions to any set of rules, I generally find that successful rice bowls almost always have certain elements in common, so I wanted to share a set of guidelines that I’ve relied upon to make great rice bowls with whatever I happen to have on hand. I’ve also created a few recipes for quick, easy-to-assemble meals that show how to put those guidelines into practice.

While lessons can be learned from rice bowls around the world, I’ve taken most of my cues Japan’s long tradition of meals-in-a-bowl-with-grains, which typically fall under the category of donburi. The term donburi is used both to mean a rice-bowl meal and the bowl in which a rice-bowl meal is served—wider and deeper than your standard-issue Japanese rice bowl, since it needs enough extra volume to accommodate both the rice and the non-rice portion of the meal. You’re likely already familiar with some of the more famous donburi, like gyudon, katsudon, and oyakodon (which mean, respectively, “beef bowl,” “cutlet bowl,” and, disturbingly, “mother and child bowl”), but even if you aren’t, the appeal of putting tasty stuff on top of rice and eating it all out of one round-bottomed container probably isn’t lost on you. Again, it’s convenient and, if everything is prepared well, delicious.

This guide and the accompanying recipes skew Japanese (because I’m skewed Japanese!), but there isn’t really any reason to limit yourself to ingredients out of the Japanese pantry. That being said, Japanese grocery stores, like Korean, Chinese, and other Asian-cuisine-focused grocery stores, are stocked with a wide variety of prepared food items designed to be eaten with rice. They can be a particularly valuable resource for small and tasty staples that can round out and diversify whatever you decided to put on top of your rice. Beyond that, you can also shop elsewhere (including online) for most, if not all, of the varied prepared products from across the world that are good on rice.

The Rules of the Rice-Bowl Road

Rule 1: The Rice Rules

First and foremost, a rice bowl is all about the rice. Much as with a Japanese breakfast, the rice makes up the bulk of the meal, and everything in the bowl that isn’t rice is meant to be eaten with it. This means that you want a good amount of rice in the bowl—about a cup and a half of cooked rice per serving—and it also means that you want to cook the rice well (take a look at my rice cooker review, which is the easiest way to get consistently great rice with no effort).

Rule 2: Limit Topping Portions but Season Them Well

Second, since the rice is the star, you don’t want to overload it with a mountain of toppings. Still, the food that you do add needs to be seasoned aggressively enough to compensate for the rice’s relative blandness. Whereas a typical American portion of something like, say, a steak, weighs about eight ounces, you’ll want to use only about half that for a rice bowl, and you’ll want to find ways to flavor it beyond salting the steak’s surface alone. A proper showering of salt may be all a seared steak needs, but that’s not going to cut it on a mound of plain rice.

Rule 3: Chop, Chop, Chop

Everything on top of the rice should be cut into bite-size pieces. Whether you plan on eating your rice bowl with a spoon, fork, or chopsticks, you don’t want large slabs of meat or vegetables that will require any kind of cutting.

Rule 4: Texture and Flavor Variety Are Key

Every rice bowl needs to be varied in both texture and flavor. Katsudon (fried pork cutlet with egg over rice) is a great example: you have chewy meat encased in a highly seasoned fried breadcrumb exterior, the tender and silky egg, strands of just-cooked onion that still have a remnant of bite, all of it dressed with a sauce that is both sweet and savory. And, for a final, optional bit of texture/flavor contrast, you can add some crisp pickled vegetables, like pickled ginger strips.

In general, think about combining ingredients that can add the following:

  • Heft: This will likely be the featured player in your rice bowl, whether it’s a portion of meat, cubes of tofu, or a hearty vegetable that can take center stage, like eggplant.
  • Umami: Many ingredients can add savory depth to your rice bowl. Meat automatically will, especially if you brown it well and make a sauce from it. Beyond that, seaweed, mushrooms, and fermented foods (anything from miso and soy sauce to lacto-fermented pickles and funky shrimp paste) will deliver a wallop of satisfying flavor.
  • Acidity: Pickles, whether vinegar-based or fermented, are one of your key players here, but even a squeeze of lemon juice can do the trick.
  • Heat: Fresh chilies, chili pastes, chili flakes and powders all work for adding anywhere from a subtle background warmth to an all-out fiery assault. It’s up to you how far you want to go. Horseradish, wasabi, and mustard are also great choices, delivering that nose-burning sensation we all love with a grimace.
  • Freshness: Thinly sliced scallions, fresh herbs, finely minced raw vegetables, even a dose of raw minced ginger or garlic can bring a breath or blast of freshness to the bowl.

Rule 5: Control Your Sauce

A flavorful sauce is almost always needed in a rice bowl: It coats your toppings and seeps down into the rice, uniting the two. But you don’t want your rice swimming in it. This is both a flavor and a texture issue because too much wet sauce means you’ll end up with overly seasoned, soupy rice. One good trick for ensuring your sauce doesn’t pool in the bottom of the bowl, aside from using an appropriate amount, is to employ some kind of thickener, like cornstarch. When it’s more viscous, the sauce will cling to the toppings more and glaze the top layer of rice, but it won’t run down and saturate everything.

Rule 6: Quick and Easy Are the Name of the Rice-Bowl Game

A rice bowl has to be quick and easy to put together. I suppose it doesn’t have to be, but part of a rice bowl’s appeal as a home-cooked meal is that it’s not going to be a heavy lift, whether you’re making it for lunch or you’re doing it for a weeknight dinner. This is where having a store of tasty stuff in your pantry really helps, but it’s also why rice bowls are an ideal way to use up leftovers. Have some broiled eggplant lying around? Overstocked on pickles? Or maybe you’ve got a leftover stir-fry or some mapo tofu from the takeout spot. All of these things can be used to make a very satisfying rice bowl in no time.

Rule 7: Construct Consciously

Even with all the other elements in place, true rice-bowl success requires considered construction. Exactly how this works depends on the ingredients, but in general, it’s worth thinking about which ingredients you want to ensure get all over the rice so that they can mix in evenly as you eat and which ones you don’t. That frequently means distributing very small ingredients like shredded nori or very finely minced pickles all over the rice, and spooning a bit of sauce (but not too much) all over. Larger pieces of vegetable and protein can be piled on more artfully and then glazed with a bit more sauce.

Anything particularly strong-flavored or pungent, like pickled ginger or hot mustard, is often best left in a small, contained clump so that the diner can choose exactly how much to get in each bite.

Get bowl recipes at Seious Eat . . . . .