My son’s nanny fell in love with my cooking. She came out of the kitchen yesterday exclaiming: ‘ I have never had such good food as the one you prepare. I don’t know what you are doing to it’. While I can’t refuse the chance of collecting a bit of praise, this post is not about my cooking at such. It is rather an exploration inspired by the nanny’s authentic ‘I don’t know what you are doing to it’ wonder on what makes food to be good food.
As a foodie and a passionate home chef, I have reflected often at the qualities of food that people enjoy and react with pleasure upon tasting it. Below are some of my thoughts on what I am doing to get the result I desire and also on what I observe when I taste good food. I elaborate on this topic with the idea in mind that cooking and eating is a relation of reciprocity between the cooker and the eater and therefore I invite you to read it with the same intent.
– Smell –
I remember my first ever real moment of mindfulness regarding food. It was a few weeks after quitting the habit of smoking and I was chopping an aubergine in my small London kitchen. As I was cutting the fresh vegetable, the smell flooded my senses, it became perfume, it made me a bit dizzy with a sensual pleasure. The smell brought back memories, reminded me of happy times and made me feel I belong to the world. Yes, indeed, because the memory of eating aubergines with my family as a child reminded me I belong to a community, to a time and a place. This short moment of mindfulness offered a connection with the meal I finally presented to my husband and my friends, the meal became my history of it and I can remember well the love, the calm, the sweet excitement I put into preparing it. The result was already a declaration of love for its future eaters. That moment also made me focus consequently on the smell of the produce I usually use in my food which brought an improved perspective on my cooking. However, nothing like this would have happened, shouldn’t I eliminated the factor that prevented me from perceiving the smell which is smoking. I would also like to add on the fact that many of us complain today that supermarket vegetables don’t have the same smell or taste as the garden ones. I think this is true up to some point. It’s not only about vegetables loosing smell and taste in the process of new agriculture, it’s also about us losing the ability to smell or taste due to chemicals we ingest or we are exposed to every day. However, a bit of mindfulness and focus will bring back the joy of smelling food.
– Taste –
There is a whole world of research on taste and the data is absolutely fascinating and revealing regarding our food behaviours. However, for most of us, taste can be quite an abstract sense. Questions such as how do I know I feel the same as another person tasting the same produce or how do I know I am right when I say something tastes good or not might be quite tempting to debate. While individually we might not possess superior physical abilities of taste, nature cared about living creatures by creating a most impressive survivor mechanism: to identify the qualities of what we eat. If we would go back to our natural abilities, we would know through taste if a food is poisonous or not, how nutritious it is and I would dare to suppose that taste could also help to assess the quantity of the food needed in different life circumstances. Again, due to chemicals and the way we eat today, we might have lost some of our natural abilities to taste food. However I strongly believe practicing mindful and focused eating, might come with a spectacle of pleasurable moments. It would also come with an incredible palette of foods to create a strong architecture of how we eat and how we nurture our bodies and minds.
– Time –
Most recipes will tell you how long to cook different foods. But we also need to use our instinct and relate to how our taste buds react to certain textures and flavours. For example, I favour carrots less cooked as I react to that certain flavour carrot gets in the middle of cooking. A friend of mine fancies less cooked rice while other people would only eat it if it’s well done. And we all know the diversity of likings when it comes to a beef steak.
After making sure you have cooked your food enough to kill bacteria, time becomes a matter of technique, desired outcome and creativity.
– Aspect –
My relation with food is also connected to painting. My husband is a visual artist and if there is something I enjoy more about his paintings than the painting itself, is the process of painting: those moments when he mixes the colours, when he introduces different substances that create different textures and densities, the moment he switches the brushes to create certain effects, the splashes and the lines, the smell that I have learned to like. And this is what I like about food as well. In the process of cooking, I take pleasure in using ingredients of different colours and textures, cutting a variety of shapes into vegetables that would create a puzzle of tasteful content, trying different techniques to maintain the colours and forms, and finally presenting the food in a way that is appealing to the eye as much as it is to the taste. As an artist myself, I have always enjoyed the process even more than the outcome, with all the mixture of thoughts, emotions and performances that come into making a piece of art. Creating, for me, comes into the shape of happiness. Creating a meal can a be a source of happiness for many of us if we choose to engage in an arty way with the process.
– Memories –
In her compelling ‘First bite. How we learn to eat’ Bee Willson speaks about memory as one of the most important aspect in shaping our food behaviours as adults. Beyond the fact that perception of food involves all our senses which makes memory of food one of the strongest we could have, our nostalgic desires of food are linked to humans’ most lovable memories, those of childhood. Childhood is where we learn to eat, is when we discover how it feels to eat and how eating makes us feel. It is very rare to enjoy in adulthood food that we hated as children but is almost all the time the case that our greatest comfort comes from food we loved as children.
Living in London, I was always fascinated of how so many cultures, some at conflict, are able to cohabitate against logic or emotions. It is certain for me, London is the positive, the ideal Babylon. And while sitting in restaurants and crowded places watching people, it made me feel they can live together here because they have access to food from home. As long as they can eat their memories, they are comforted to exist in situations otherwise unthinkable for them. As long as you have the food from your childhood, from your home, you feel you belong even in the strangest places.
– The context of serving –
Is it a party? Is it Christmas dinner? Is it 3 am when you are tired and baby woke you up? Is it a train station? Are you lonely and depressed? Are you having lunch at work next to your angry boss? Is it Friday evening and you meet someone that you love? Is it a holiday in a warm paradise? Is it a greasy fast food or a luxurious restaurant? Have a salty slice of boiled potato or a piece of bread in each of this situations and tell me the taste of it? The state of your hart, the place and the people surrounding you will make out of a piece of bread the most amazing food in the world or the tasteless thing you ever had.
I made a pact with myself to avoid eating when I am upset, when I am in a place that I hate or surrounded by people I don’t feel comfortable around. This is how I make sure I am not creating for myself a bad experience with food.
Also, for me, all food tastes so much better when I am sharing with people that I love.
– Technique –
In a discussion with a professional chef I was reminded that most of domestic cooking is based on habit rather than knowledge. And it is amazing how we take for granted the job of food preparation. We all do some cooking. Most individuals in the world are found doing at least an activity close to cooking, such as boiling an egg or toasting a slice of bread. And the vast majority of women and lots of men are engaging on a daily basis in activities related to food preparation or serious cooking. The vast distribution of food preparation made us indulgent with our lack of knowledge and oblivious to the science of it. I am still researching myself on various techniques and approaches and every now and then I like to challenge my own habits and explore how things can be improved or varied. For example – and this is only to share my own process of thinking about food and not to say it could work for your family as well – I favour oven baking instead of boiling or frying. While it was hard for my husband to accept oven baked ‘fried potatoes’, schnitzel or meatballs, easily it became the norm and we are now enjoying the taste while avoiding oil fried food. Also, when I think of technique, I also think of traditions. For example, I have learned from cooking Indian food that frying the ground spices beforehand enhance their flavour. The discussion could continue traveling around the hundreds of culinary traditions, but the main take from this topic is the invitation to consider and to take seriously the cooking technique. And if you don’t have one or you can’t be bother to select one, just follow the recipe as you would follow a prescription. I promise, it will make food so much more enjoyable.
– Nutrition –
Food cultures around the world based their what and how to on necessity, geography, environment, relation with nature and the world, political context, intellectual development, religious believes and so on. However today we have ‘mixed and matched’ everything in terms of produce, we defied nature and reinvented geography. Don’t get me wrong, I adore buying mangos in Romania. But this richness of products together with political contexts, fashion and health trends have changed most of our food cultures in a way that makes us forget what is really important and this is: nutrition. We rather eat for the taste, for the excitement or by means of habit rather than consciously adopting a nutritional strategy for our nourishing. When I cook, most of the time I am considerate of the nutritional needs of my family; in the mathematics of cooking I add proteins, fibres, carbs, minerals, vitamins. I try to keep a track of our activities and how much energy my food provides.
– Culture –
I come back to my fascination of London and food. The ability to get acquainted to so many cultures of food without traveling too far is something of a beautiful dream for me. I used to plan trips to different ethnic restaurants and I would research on the food I was going to have, speak to the chef or people eating in that restaurant, try to understand as much as I can about a group of people through the way they prepare food. And this is where differences make experiences powerful. The most common food I met in ethnic restaurants is rice and wheat. But the difference in preparing them tells the stories and the histories of a community. This is how I realised about myself that rice cannot be boring anymore if it has so many stories to tell.
When I talk about food cultures, I am not only considering ethnic or regional food, but trends that change how different generations of people eat, based on their social, economic and political values. This days, if you live in a western or westernised country, eating avocado and kale can be a matter of social status, the bread you eat talks about your financial situation, eating meat or not eating meat may raise political questions and so on.
– Ingredients –
I left this one for the end as I think the quality of ingredients is definitely the most important command of good food. My son’s nanny brought some Romanian peppers from her garden. Having a mouthful of that raw still green Romanian pepper moved me back in my childhood years to the times I was hounding farmer’s markets in my city of birth, Constanta. But the reaction to the bite from the Romanian pepper was not only linked to the memory of it. The actual taste of freshness, the rush of flavours bursting on my tongue, the crispy sound of the bite into the fat strong flash of the vegetable, the juicy splash of flavoured liquid jumping all over, a full performance for the senses. Cooking with such an ingredient resulted in a meal that was hart warming, wholesome, nutritious and nurturing, delighting for every cell in our satiated bodies.
Food is good when we involve mind, emotions and instincts at work to create a produce of love. Taking pleasure in cooking makes food so much closer to be good food. And I would like to add that cooking good food might be talent, science, practice or even luck, but rarely a food is truly good if the eaters are not similarly talented or mindful in the way they consume it.