Imagine a spread of delicious dishes on your family’s dining table during Eid, Diwali or Christmas – how many of them would you be able to make without looking at a recipe?
My mum, Asma Nayeem, a retired marketing communications manager, has been cooking based on her own tastes and sensibilities for decades. When I asked her how she makes elaborate meals without referring to a guide, she said it came down to something really simple.
“Just keep tasting as you cook. And if you’ve made a mistake, don’t panic. You can fix almost every issue one way or another.”
Just keep tasting as you cook. And if you’ve made a mistake, don’t panic. You can fix almost every issue one way or another.
Everyone knows if a dish tastes “off”, she explained – it’s just a matter of finding out what’s causing the issue and correcting it.
For instance, if your curry tastes too salty, add a peeled, raw potato to the dish, which will absorb the excess salt. If your stew is too spicy, chop a couple of tomatoes and add to the broth – it’ll dilute its effect.
These tricks are part of the experimenting process and make the experience both interesting and fun, according to my mum.
She said: “Cooking is a stress-buster. When you’re cooking, you use all your senses – your sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – so there’s no time to think about other things. I also think your sixth sense, your intuition, is working, because you usually know if something is going wrong and you will want to adjust different ingredients to get it right.”
But, to just help readers of this article wishing to try these time-tested recipes, I've managed to get the exact measures from the home chefs as a starting point.
Asma's Suji Halwa
- 5 ground cardamoms
- 1 cup semolina
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup cashews
- ½ cup sultanas
- ½ cup ghee
- 1 tsp ghee for roasting
- Chop the cashews and sultanas.
- In a pan, add 1 tsp of ghee. Once hot, add the chopped cashews and sultanas. Lightly fry them until the cashews are browned. Set aside.
- Wipe the pan clean and add the semolina to it. On medium-heat, roast the semolina for a few minutes. Set aside.
- In a small saucepan, melt the sugar until it becomes a semi-thick syrup. Set aside.
- In a saucepan, heat ½ a cup of ghee. Add the ground cardamom, then the sugar syrup. Keep stirring.
- Next, add the semolina. Stir and cook for a few minutes until the semolina becomes soft.
- Place a lid on the saucepan and leave on low heat for another minute.
- Transfer the dessert into a serving dish. Garnish with roasted cashews and sultanas. Serve.
One way to cook without recipes successfully is to build from what you know. It’s something Syed Mahmood Hussain, a 71-year-old retired businessman, has been doing for decades. He cooks lunch for his family almost every day, and the menu is always a surprise.
The Indian expat said: “I started cooking in the 1980’s, during my bachelor days. For me, cooking is a trial-and-error process. I rarely use recipes.”
The trick, according to Hussain, is in the proportions. He said: “Many Indian dishes have the same base – oil, onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, garam masala, and some spices. So, I experiment by changing the ratios, adding a little more of this, a little less of that. In the end, it all works out.”
Many Indian dishes have the same base... So, I experiment by changing the ratios, adding a little more of this, a little less of that. In the end, it all works out.
According to Hussain, people can learn to understand proportions and flavours when experimenting in the kitchen, but also when eating at restaurants, when trying new dishes during their travels, and when watching cooking shows or reading cookbooks. Knowledge gained from these experiences gives home cooks a better sense of which ingredients go together, which spices bring out flavours, and how a dish comes together.
Over the years, Hussain has developed 10 to 12 Indian dishes, like his own version of bhuna ghosht and biryani, which he cooks frequently.
Hussain's Mutton Biryani
- 1 kg mutton, cut into medium pieces
- 5 green cardamoms
- 2-inch cinnamon sticks
- 7 cloves
- 4 garlic pods, chopped
- 4 medium onions, chopped long
- 4 tomatoes, chopped
- 1 bunch coriander, chopped
- ½ cup mint leaves, chopped
- 2 green chillies
- 2 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
- ¼ tsp turmeric powder
- ¾ tsp red chilli powder
- ½ cup yoghurt
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp oil
- Salt to taste
- For the rice:
- 5 cups Basmati rice
- 7 ½ cups water
- ¼ cup mint leaves
- Salt to taste
- In a pressure cooker, add oil. Once hot, add the garam masala (cinnamon, cardamom, cloves).
- Next, add the onions and sauté until golden-brown in colour. Add the ginger-garlic paste and sauté until the raw smell goes away.
- Add the mutton pieces and mix. Add the turmeric, red chilli powder and salt. Mix well.
- Next, add the tomatoes and green chillies. Once the tomatoes soften, add yoghurt and lemon juice, along with the coriander and mint. Mix well. Add a little water if needed.
- Close the lid and pressure cook till the meat becomes tender (5 to 8 minutes).
- Meanwhile, cook the rice. Place a pot on the stove. Add water. Add salt (the water should taste salty) and mint leaves. Once the water begins to boil, add the uncooked rice into it.
- Once the rice is al dente (half cooked), drain the water. Keep the rice aside.
- Back to the mutton – once the pressure is released, remove the lid and check to ensure the mutton is in a thick gravy. If there is too much liquid, let it cook for a few more minutes until it reduces. Taste and adjust salt.
- In the pot, layer the half-cooked rice with the mutton gravy. Top with a few mint leaves.
- Next, cover the vessel with a dishcloth or aluminum foil. Place a heavy lid over the pot. Let it rest on low heat for 15 minutes. Then switch off the stove and allow it to rest for another 5 minutes.
- Serve hot in a platter, with a raita.
For Lynn Hazim, a Lebanese analytical consultant, a recipe doesn’t decide what she should cook – the contents of her fridge does.
The Dubai resident, who shares her culinary journey through @nosoupforyou on Instagram, said: “I always have a stocked-up pantry, fridge, and freezer, and I strongly believe this is key in getting you to cook more often and more creatively. You need to be limited by something, and in this case, the limit is the ingredients available at hand. This gets you to think about what you can create quickly and easily, and you’ll be more creative and come up with dishes you’ve never thought about before.”
I always have a stocked-up pantry, fridge, and freezer, and I strongly believe this is key in getting you to cook more often and more creatively.
Cooking without a guide may be a daunting task for many people, though, and Hazim said she understands that feeling of uncertainty. When she first started cooking at age 23, she used to follow recipes, and with time, gained the confidence to “freestyle” with whatever ingredients were available.
She said: “I really believe that when you first start cooking, you need to cook recipes of dishes you have already tried. This will really help you in problem solving as you go, because you know the end goal, you know what it should look like and what it should taste like, so you can adjust the recipe more comfortably, even with your limited cooking knowledge.”
Once you gain confidence, it’s just a matter of keeping at it in the kitchen. With time, aspects such as estimating the correct amount of ingredients, identifying when a dish is done, and getting your dish to have the right texture will get easier to master.
Hazim said: “I cook almost on a daily basis, and every day, I get slightly better than the day before. You will always make mistakes, even as an experienced cook, and with every mistake, you will learn something new in the kitchen, something that a recipe can’t really teach you, and this is ultimately what will really equip you to be a better cook.”
Hazim's Ricotta Gnocchi with Zaatar Butter and Sumac
- 100g butter
- 1 bunch fresh zaatar leaves
- 500g ricotta cheese
- 3 large eggs (1 full egg and 2 egg yolks)
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp sumac
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Make the gnocchi dough:
- Scrape the ricotta onto a double layer of paper towels; wrap up to enclose cheese or place more paper towels on top and forcefully press down on ricotta to draw out excess moisture.
- Transfer ricotta to a medium bowl. Add 1 egg, 2 egg yolks, 1 tsp salt, and several generous grinds of black pepper. Mix well with a heatproof rubber spatula to combine.
- Next, mix in the grated Parmesan cheese, followed by all-purpose flour. If dough is sticky, add more flour by the tablespoonful until dough is workable – it should still feel very light and pillowy (the amount of flour you need will vary depending on the moisture level of your ricotta – it could be 1 to 4 tbsp more).
- Transfer dough to a floured work surface and knead a couple of times to bring together. Cut into 6 pieces.
- Roll out each piece to make a 2 cm diameter strand (should look like a snake), dusting with more flour as needed, if dough is too sticky to work with.
- Using a chef’s knife or a bench scraper, cut strands into 2 cm pieces (flour your knife or scraper to make the process easier). Transfer gnocchi to a floured baking sheet as you go.
- Tip: Gnocchi can be made up to a week ahead, freeze immediately.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (the water should have enough salt to taste like the ocean).
- Gently add gnocchi to boiling water and stir lightly with a slotted spoon to make sure they are not sticking to the pot or one another.
- Cook until the gnocchi rise to the surface, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Using a slotted spoon, scoop out gnocchi and place on a baking sheet if your zaatar butter sauce is not ready yet. Do not discard the cooking water as we will use it for our sauce.
- Make the zaatar butter sauce:
- Heat a medium sized pan on medium heat. Add 100g of butter and fresh zaatar leaves (leaving a few for plating later).
- Let the butter melt while it is infusing the zaatar leaves, stirring every now and then.
- Add 1/3 cup of the gnocchi cooking water and continue stirring until the sauce emulsifies (becomes one).
- Taste for salt and pepper (it shouldn’t need much salt as the cooking water should be salty). Now, add the cooked gnocchi and mix everything together. Turn off heat.
- Assemble the dish: Place the cooked gnocchi into 4 separate bowls, sprinkle ½ tsp of sumac on each bowl and 4 to 5 leaves of zaatar.
- Serve and enjoy!