After graduating from college and getting an apartment of my own, new cooking challenges emerged. Other than how to make basic spaghetti or macaroni and cheese, I had no idea what to do in the kitchen. When friends or boyfriends came over, I’d order in. If I craved my mother’s meticulously prepared South Indian cooking, I’d book a ticket to visit her. Although I wanted to learn how to replicate the tastes and smells of my childhood meals, I never could find any outlet from books to television cooking shows that could teach me to cook the way I wanted to.
A lot of time has passed since those days. I’m now a married woman, and with the help of a few inspirational souls and a very patient mother, I’ve finally come to terms with my abilities in the kitchen. While I’m not sure if I will ever be able to take on culinary greats like Floyd Cardoz in a cook-off, I know can definitely hold my own, and I’d like to share some of the tips that got me well on my way.
1. Identify people whose cooking you admire.
And spend time with them! Learn how they organize themselves in their kitchen. What are their must-have ingredients? What are their favorite ingredients? How do they use recipes? What techniques can you learn from them? What utensils do they use? What ingredients do they always use fresh, and what ingredients do they use frozen, canned, or pre-prepared? This was, by far, the most impactful observation in terms of improving my culinary skills. I admired my mother’s cooking skills, and I spend countless days in the kitchen with her learning how she modified recipes to make them her own, how she would never sacrifice chopping fresh onions for every dish even if her eyes watered relentlessly, and what ingredients she felt had the most effect in turning out flavorful, aromatic dishes.
2. Take the time to explore and understand spices and ingredients.
What does cardamom taste like? Can you identify mint, basil, parsley, and cilantro by sight and smell? How spicy is the garam masala (hot spice mixture) that you like to use? Where does a chili pepper hold its heat?
As you spend time with different cooking items, you will discover what you like and what you don’t like to include in your own cooking. You will also learn how different spices and ingredients interact with each other. One thing I noticed immediately is that I preferred the spice and flavor combination of store-boughtrasam powder (spicy pepper and tomato soup) to that of store-bought garam masala. I began partially substituting rasam powder into my recipes when I would normally have put garam masala, although not replacing the latter completely. The result has been uniquely flavored dishes that have a special and unexpected ingredient of my own.
3. Invest in good kitchenware.
Slicing tomatoes with a dull knife is a recipe for disaster. Make sure you use a separate grinder for your South Asian spices and for coffee. If you plan on making dosas (fermented rice crepes) at home, go to an Indian market and buy the proper pan in which to make them. My culinary skills improved vastly after my wedding. I want to attribute it to the extra love I put into the dishes I prepare for my husband, but I know the real reason is my extensive wedding registry. A wonderful knife set, along with a pressure cooker, a matching set of pots and pans, a food processor, and a garlic press have all helped me make satisfying, well prepared creations.
4. Determine your personal must-do’s.
Do you always have to use certain types of fresh vegetables or are frozen just fine? Some people pre-fry their onions and store them for multiple dishes during the week; others wouldn’t dream of it. I am perfectly fine with using bottled chutneys, but many people have to make them from scratch. Having grown up in a traditional South Indian family, there is just no way I would ever substitute fresh grated coconut in my cooking for the bagged, dried, and flaked kind available at the grocery store. Once you know what you absolutely must do when you cook, you begin to form your own personal style. It will be memorable for anyone who eats your cooking and satisfying for you.
5. Develop your “standard” grocery list.
A lot of people find that when they start cooking, they need to run back and forth to the grocery store (and for Indian dishes, to the ethnic grocer) because they are just not familiar with what is needed for most dishes they plan to prepare. As you become a regular in the kitchen, you will find there are certain ingredients that are your mainstays, ingredients with which you can cook nearly 80 percent of the dishes you like to prepare. For me, this list includes tomatoes, onions, garlic, lemon, serrano chilies, canola oil, cumin, asafetida, turmeric, garam masala, rasam powder, lentils, and cilantro. One you know what your standard grocery list is, shopping becomes so much easier! Restock what you need from your list and augment it with seasonal items or other unique things you’d like to try.
6. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Cooking is an art, and without a little experimentation it is hard to figure out what does and does not taste good. Every chef is unique. It is important to understand how the chefs you admire the most cook, but it is ultimately up to you to take their style and make it your own. I’ll often try out a recipe, and then later try to figure out what it is that I can add or take away that will make this recipe more like something I would normally make in my own kitchen. Sometimes, coming up with your own recipe can be the most exciting and satisfying thing you can do as a chef, but it will never happen if you are afraid to experiment!
Vidhya P. Ravi is a recent graduate of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.