Satyan Chawla
Designer | Photographer | Human

Thoughts, Ideas, Reflections

The sixth sense of cooking

Say you are given a recipe by a master chef to cook, listed with all the ingredients from diced onions to kosher salt to chiffonade cilantro, each and every step and procedure carefully detailed, do you think you’d be able to replicate the recipe to the same taste? No you won’t.

I have been a generic foodie all my life but these few days I’ve become crazy mad about food and cooking thanks to Michael Pollen’s “Cooked”, I love the idea of transforming a few simple ingredients into something that is anything but simple, unraveling a treasure of hidden flavours, the interplay of these crazy chemicals, and the magical power of elements.

“When you are cooking, you create something. Something that is bigger than the sum of its parts”

If you think about it you’d realise that there is more to cooking than meets the eye, but only if you think about it. Or maybe reading this would help too. There are people who have dedicated their whole lives for perfecting a loaf of bread, or to smoke a stunning hog, or to brew that perfect beer. Cooking might seem as a monotonous job to us who see food being cooked in our home kitchens everyday or even those burgers being flipped at the food joints, but there is something very special about the home cooked food that is far more superior to the “mass produced edible substance”.

Yesterday when I was cooking Kadhai Paneer following a recipe I saw on Youtube, I knew I wouldn’t be able to perfectly replicate it even though I was doing everything exactly as I was supposed to, the results weren’t disappointing at all and I’d say I had reached 80% of the perfect mark (in reference to the recipe), and I am sure the resemblance would get more clearer every time I cook it, but I’ll never match the exact taste, flavor and looks of the original. One reason is that there are too many variables to control, like vessels, amount of heat, timing, quality of ingredients, environment, etc. but another more interesting factor is the intuition with which we cook.

In Indian cuisine we often say “uske haath ka khaana” which roughly translates to “food of his/her hands”. What we really mean to say is that there is a very unique taste in an individual’s style of cooking, even if the ingredients and the methods are exactly the same. This uniqueness comes from within and can’t be taught to someone else. Technically one can say that the difference is all about the creativity of combining the ingredients and the judgement of timing and quantities, and I have come to learn that cooking is more art than technique. Of course it is essential that you understand what is happening on the molecular level of transformations, or at least how different kinds of ingredients interact with each other, but for me cooking is more about how you as a human interact with these natural elements.

The beauty of cooking is that it is one such activity that seems to engage all of our five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch), but I like to think that it takes more than that. Yes we do use all our five senses to gather the input of what’s happening, but there’s a sense of judgement that helps us make the decision to take action. We don’t really calculate the amount of salt to be added, or the optimum temperature required to put the curry on simmer, we just take the salt (and spices) in pinches, and adjust the knob of the stove by looking at the flame.

One could argue that we use our “sixth sense” for everything where mind body coordination is required and developed over time, say for driving or swimming. It’s true that while learning something new we have to put our cognitive thoughts to the stimuli we receive and our appropriate reactions to them, and over time our subconscious mind does the work so we don’t have to think about it. For me cooking is far more alluring than driving. I agree that during the whole cooking process there could be some tasks like chopping onions that don’t need much thinking, however the precise extent to which they need to be roasted in butter comes from our intuition. Unlike driving, cooking is not a task that our body is performing, you are building something out of what you have, you are embracing nature and its transformations with your hands in front of your eyes , you get to smell the aromas, you taste the sweetness, you can hear the sizzle, you feel the velvety textures.

If I had to compare that feeling to something that goes beyond our senses, it would be music. When an artist is composing music, he is using his senses to interact with his instruments by feeling them, sometimes listening to other music, and sometimes looking at his music sheets, but most of it is coming from within. What keeps music short of cooking is that we never get to use two of our senses; taste and smell.

The added dimension of intuition for cooking can be learned and perfected over time. Many have done it. And it takes a lot of passion to develop that sense. The sense that gives a person the confidence to say that he/she can cook, because if cooking was just putting stuff together and heating, everyone would become a master chef.

CookingSatyan Chawla