In the first few weeks of the Movement Control Order, I made meals that consisted of microwaved eggs, reheated rice, instant noodles and other two-minute concoctions that would barely qualify as food.
This was fine…until it wasn’t. One day, the thought of another meal of microwaved eggs just made me queasy. So like many other Malaysians, I started to seriously learn how to cook for the first time.
Here a few things I’ve learned in the past few months. If you’re a non-cook wanting to learn, and you’ve found yourself with some free time lately thank to the coronavirus pandemic, I hope this helps you too:
Anatomy of a meal
A recipe is a sensible starting point for figuring out your grocery list. But when I’m shopping for several meals, figuring out what to add to my cart can be intimidating, especially if i’m shopping for a few recipes at once. Plus, sometimes I just want to pop by the supermarket to make a quick dinner, without searching online for an easy beginner recipe that calls for ten ingredients.
I found it easier to break down a meal into protein, vegetables and carbohydrates, then decide on an ingredient or two for each group:
- Protein: chicken, beef, fish, eggs, tofu
- Vegetables: sweet potato leaves, kangkung, kacang botol, kai lan, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, rocket
- Carbohydrates: rice, noodles, pasta, potatoes (regular/sweet), legumes and beans
I centre my meals around a main protein – this makes it easier for me to decide what to eat (and how to shop), instead of starting from a recipe. For example, chicken thighs and broccoli; fish, sweet potato leaves and rice; tofu, eggs, rice and seaweed. It’s not culinary innovation, but hey, it’s a start.
Two simple methods of cooking
For those starting out, pan frying and oven roasting are low-effort ways to make tasty meals.
If your kitchen experience is limited to frying an egg, you’ll be glad to hear that the process doesn’t differ much from frying more complex food:
- Heat your pan on medium-high heat for a few minutes
- Add enough oil to cover the whole pan in a thin layer of oil
- Once the oil sizzles, place the ingredients
- Wait until cooked, flip over ingredients (gently), if necessary
A high heat gives your food a flavourful, brown surface (thanks to the Maillard Reaction). But for thick cuts of protein, like chicken breasts or pork chops, lowering the heat afterwards helps it reach the insides without overcooking the exterior – which also means you won’t burn your food.
Oven roasting is even easier. Preheat your oven for around 10 minutes. Rub oil and seasoning onto your food in an oven tray. Pop the tray in the oven, remove when done, then check if completely cooked.
The hard bit for me was remembering how long to roast and how high to set the temperature for each meal. While this will vary depending on your oven (and your preference for crisp surfaces on your food), I used the fan-forced option and the following settings:
- Preheating: 200°F for 10 minutes
- Whole chicken: 180°F for 45 minutes
- Chicken thighs/breasts: 200°F for 20 minutes
- Fish fillet: 200°F for 10 to 15 minutes
When it comes to the effort vs deliciousness ratio, it’s hard to beat roasting. I like tossing together chicken and vegetables into the same pan. The chicken emerges with crisp, golden brown skin, and drab vegetables like broccoli and carrots are transformed – tender, a bit charred at the ends, shiny with chicken fat.
Salt, fat, acid
Author and Netflix-chef Samin Nosrat writes in the introduction of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: “There are only four basic factors that determine how good your food will taste: salt, which enhances flavour; fat, which amplifies flavour and makes appealing textures possible; acid, which brightens and balances; and heat, which ultimately determines the texture of food.”
In my own experimentation, these ingredients helped elevate bland meals into edible ones, and good meals into great ones (by my own standards anyway – remember that my yardstick was microwaved eggs):
- Salt: If you find your food too bland, you may have left out the salt. Salt brings out flavour in food, but it’s also easy to overdo. Try adding it incrementally, tasting as you cook. Here’s a great guide to seasoning for beginners.
- Butter: Gives food a sensation of richness and amplifies flavours – butter makes everything better. I like to add a dab when pan frying or melt it on top of roast meat or vegetables.
- Lemon and lime: As a beginner cook who’s used to eating good food made by other people (thanks, mum!) – that is, food with layers of flavour, texture and complexity – my own attempts tasted a bit, well, flat. I found that adding a squeeze of lemon or lime helped to brighten up certain dishes (especially if greasy or fatty) and create depth of flavour.
The little I’ve learned over the past few months has given me some confidence to explore more ingredients, methods and recipes. I’ve also started to enjoy cooking – there’s something primal and satisfying about handling raw ingredients and coaxing their transformation into edible meals. As a means of exploring culture, heritage and tradition, it connects you to something larger than yourself.
Sure, not every moment of culinary creation will be a transcendental experience. Some days, you’ll feel a rising sense of panic that you’ve somehow bungled up something. You’ll stand over your stove, wiping off beads of sweat, cursing at a piece of chicken for not cooking through entirely. You’ll cower in fear as the frying oil splatters in your face. Sometimes, you won’t care about creating something good or new or exciting – you’ll just want lunch.
But it’ll get easier. You’ll develop a better instinct for how much oil or salt or heat to use. Your repertoire of perfectly-executed meals will expand. Soon, you may find yourself wanting to cook for the sheer pleasure of it, and not because you need to.
So if you’ve never made anything more complex than a fried egg, now is the time to try. Don’t fear the frying pan. Make amends with your oven. Go forth, and make dinner.