I rarely follow recipes. I use them all the time for ideas, but I adapt and improvise. I haven’t used a knife to level the top of a cup of flour in decades, though that’s what I was taught in Home Economics. Now that Berkshire Publishing is venturing into food studies and cookery, though, I have to clean up my act. It won’t help readers if I am as casual as I am with my friends about how I made a dish, and I’ll have to test different versions of Chinese dishes, too, and weigh in on the best or easiest approach for an American kitchen. And I have to decide, for our online recipe database, whether to go with the imprecise mode of recipe writing I’m partial to (“add a dollop of crème fraise,” “bake until done”) or have my team emulate the chemistry-lab precision of Cooks Illustrated.
There’s a good argument for precision. Most people do not learn to cook while growing up. Young people may never have seen much home cooking. They haven’t had a chance to see the changes a cake goes through as it bakes, or discovered that fresh green vegetable become much darker green as they cook (only later, if cooked too long, do they become sludge green and dank). Simple instructions like “fold in two egg whites whipped until stiff” will confound a novice who has never hung out in a kitchen with a skilled home cook.
On the other hand, precise recipes – with detailed measurements, methods, and ingredients – are daunting.
A compromise I dislike is one in which the author offers recipe “templates” with dozens of substitutes and alternatives, so no dish is coherent. There’s no continuity. While you could use chopped mint or summer savory with your fresh tomatoes, the traditional time-tested combination is tomato and basil. This approach is supposed to make the cook feel more creative, I guess, or less anxious about not having all the right ingredients. But it’s too much like piling a cup of strawberry frozen yoghurt with gummy bears and peanuts and toffee bars for my taste. I like to experiment, but that’s after years of learning a host of foundation dishes and flavor combinations.
At Berkshire Publishing, with the Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines, I face a greater challenge because we need to organize thousands of Chinese (and other) recipes can be incorporated, organized, and made searchable by ingredient, technique, and region. Someone might want to generate a shopping list for a chosen menu. When I was making my first Chinese meal, for example, I had to go through all the recipes I was planning to use to work out how much chili oil (Hong You) I needed, because I was making my own. We want a system that will make that calculation easy for users.
There are two more big questions. First, measurements. There is the metric system, which uses weights for many ingredients rather than volume. The US recipe measurement system is not only in quarts and pints and teaspoons but measures flour and sugar by volume rather than weight. British cookbooks published before the 1990s generally used another system, called “Imperial.” Remember the British Empire? Well, there are Imperial gallons, pints, and other measurements in many of my best-loved books. And there will be other measurement systems to translate from, or into.
Second, nomenclature. This varies even between the UK and US. Should we use aubergine or eggplant? Demarara or brown sugar? Green onions or spring onions or scallions?
The good news is that we have a lot of experience with international conversions, and terminology. I’m also lucky in having staff who are experienced cooks and come from different countries. I’ve cooked in the UK, Tom’s cooked in China, and Mar, who is Dutch, has cooked in the United States and now lives in Germany. We’ll be posting our developing authority list of food names and product information, and we’re developing recipe standards that will be part of our online database system. For an ingredient like tofu – also spelled doufu, and referred to in older cookbooks as soya cheese or beancurd – cooks will be able to click to an article with historical information and details about the many different types of doufu – which will be, I think, our standard spelling.
I have the advantage of having eaten in China – I seem to eat all the time when I am there – so I have flavor memories and a visual and tactical sense of Chinese meals. I will never be a precise cook but I am becoming accustomed to keeping records and taking photos, and making notes on how it feels to cook with new ingredients and techniques. We haven’t resolved the question of recipe precision, yet. I suspect that we’ll have to find a technical way to distinguish recipes that don’t require exact measurements from those that depend on meticulously following the directions. Our project now has some of the world’s most accomplished Chinese cookery writers on board, and we’ll be getting their input – and in the days ahead we’ll be sharing more about the challenges of Cooking Chinese.