Cooking comes to me like the inspiration of an artwork. I never really follow a recipe to a T. Seriously. There are a million recipes of anything on the internet. I just look at them as a source of idea. Not only that, I can read Thai, so I can see the more authentic Thai recipes. Pinterest doesn’t hurt, either.
It’s funny that when I work in the lab, I have to measure everything to the nanoscale (no kidding!). That goes in stark contrast with my spontaneous and adventurous personality. I would just throw things together on the fly and rarely measure most things until I get to the point when I try to get really really lean. Somehow this sense of eye-balling didn’t come to me naturally at all.
My kitchen training is like that. We all learn from the older ladies when we hang out in the kitchen, right? I learned from the older female relatives back home growing up, and it always baffled me as to why the best cooks never measured anything. When I asked them how they made a certain dish, they would come up with a list of things to include, and just seem to throw them in as they go. Even when I took a traditional Royal Thai dessert course at Suan Dusit Rajabhat University, which were taught by food scientists, most of the demonstrations were done by eyeballing the ingredients. The amazing part is that Royal Thai Desserts weren’t just sugar and starch thrown together, they were pure works of delicate arts. Each item could take a whole 12 hour to make from scratch.
I mastered baking on my own during my early teenage years through reading recipe books, because everything was to be measured, optimized and calculated to perfection. Day after day the cakes and the cookies left my oven in its perfect shape and form. At that point I was dreaming of becoming a food scientist because all of that was just so much fun. I loved baking them and eating them.
As for the savoury dishes that I learned in the kitchen, I learned that it’s either I screwed up or I didn’t. The aunties and my mom told me that I could replace certain ingredients to serve the same purpose (e.g. salt for fish sauce, vinegar for lime juice, just omit it if you don’t have it etc). I never really had to cook for myself until I left home for university. Then all of a sudden, I was called a good cook (by the people who lived on either Kraft dinner or eggs). The magic was perhaps the brand of oyster sauce that my mom always bought and making sure it wasn’t too salty. The stir-fry could be assembled from any item that was on sale. That was the start of my experimental chef career.
The compliments were such a confidence booster that I went on and got together with other people who knew how to cook. The international students would get homesick and crave certain dishes from back home, so we googled how to make them and substituted things as we saw fit. The chefs inside of us grew. There was nothing that we couldn’t make. Once, I and my Thai friends had to sell food for fundraising, so she made a sort-of-spicy stirfry, labeled it a Thai dish and sold it at our booth. It was the hit item of the event, so we were naming it after her. (Yes, that’s a nerdy thing because we were science/engineering majors.)
These acquired skills which were critical for me to switch my lifestyle and body composition around to earn my six pack abs. It’s massive massive fun and I feel the gratitude that I can take good care of myself. If anything, I live on “what’s on sale?” diet. There’s only a few simple rules that I follow.
So… if nobody ever call yourself a chef, then call yourself one right now!