Some of us prefer to follow a recipe precisely. But maybe we can treat recipes as sources of ideas for our own creativity, as cues to what foods work together, or little slices of inspiration. There are recipes that shouldn’t be messed with, but others we’d do well to adapt: turning non halal recipes into halal recipes, changing major and minor ingredients, and/or making existing halal recipes our own, by substituting a little or a lot. We don’t all have the time to be culinary Willy Wonka’s, especially after work. But maybe there’s room for more experimentation – for collecting recipes only to fashion our own. Keep them in a book, pass them on, pass them down – just practise them before a dinner party. Do you agree that ‘playing with our food’ could make for a richer cooking and eating experience at home?
I can’t follow recipes.
I have mountains of mouth-watering halal recipes tucked away. Some of them are nostalgic. All of them are worth making a hundred times over.
I look at the ingredients and cast an eye over any tricky parts of the process. Then I make it up.
I like to put my inability to follow recipes down to a natural ability to improvise. In reality, it’s a short attention span. It’s embarrassing to admit that I was the sort of child who ignored the part at the beginning of a school exam that told you to read all the way through before answering any questions.
I have a natural tendency to give little importance to all of the details, such as measuring and finding the exact ingredients – you know, stuff that is fairly fundamental to the following of a recipe.
I once attempted a Gordon Ramsey dish that included something called ‘morrels’, which at the time I’d never heard of, and for some reason I imagined as an apricot-like fruit. As I went through the complex set of instructions, I had come to believe my identification of the morrel to be true. When the recipe said, at its denouement, ‘Now add the mushrooms’, I thought there must have been some sort of mistake. ‘What mushrooms?’ I thought. I ended up writing to Gordon to tell him my delicious dried apricot version might be an improvement.
Mistakes are how recipes are discovered.
That wasn’t true of the time my mother put lime pickle in a halal recipe for Shepherds’ Pie because she forgot to buy the carrots. It also, of course, isn’t true of baking where exactness is key. And I can tell you from experience that it’s a less successful approach where cuisines you’re not familiar with at all are concerned. (I have put that Szechuan fish soup entirely out of my mind!)
However, it is true that the more you experiment, the more you come to know. Sometimes when we divert from a recipe, we find cooking to be more fun, therapeutic, and an even greater method of expression.
Like most of us, when I’m cooking I know when I need to add more water, stock, oil. I always throw in handfuls more fresh herbs, lemon or lime juice and dusting of spices than recommended by most non-Asian cookery books. Usually more salt too. When I cook curries, it’s just about tasting, adding, tasting and adding, reducing when it looks like it ought to be reduced. You get the idea, use instinct. And then there are times when you feel braver, and you decide to put a different key herb in, a different spice, or chuck in some pineapple where the recipe doesn’t even hint at a pineapple.
Fortunately we find many beautifully collected and readily available halal recipes online on the run-up to Eid. And at other times of the year there are heaps of halal recipes out there: sweet and savoury delights, delicious and distinctive. But on the basis that food culture is so varied beyond British and South Asian favourites, shouldn’t we be able to adapt anything into a halal recipe? There are a few books with halal recipes that cover broader world cuisine, but they’re few and far between. So many non halal recipes throw up problems: you realise that you can’t make it because of a major or minor ingredient, and so perhaps that’s why many of us tend to stick to the same things, the tried and trusted favourites? Shouldn’t we be pioneering our own versions of halal recipes? After a long day at work maybe that sounds arduous. The commute and the cook aren’t always compatriots, and almost everyone has a mental recipe book of easy after-work things to knock up: a pasta bake here, an omelette there, the things you think of triumphantly in the supermarket aisle that aren’t on the shopping list. But, experimenting with food can be good for the soul. Our parents told us not to play with our food, but I think it’s worth investing the time to do just that.
Adaptations of world dishes needn’t stop at transforming dishes into halal recipes. There are so many substitutions we can make beyond the key step of ensuring it addresses our values. Maybe we should view recipe books simply as givers of ideas for our own culinary creations. Surely this is where the Foodie/Millennial Muslim can best express his/herself.
My husband is an engineer. He is a precise man. And he likes molecular gastronomy. He has the sort of scientific equipment to transform almost any food into a foam or an ice-cream. He dehydrates foods to turn them into what look like little sponge cakes, and he uses nitrogen and enzymes and funny whisks and syringes. He can make mushroom ice-creams and foams that taste as if you’ve bitten into a fig. He cooks poached eggs in a special machine so slowly that he can sometimes leave them to bake for an hour and a half, and they’ll be mouth-watering and still runny enough to dunk.
Now to me, as someone who never uses an egg-timer, that’s just Greek. But it goes to show how food is, even when explicitly scientific, about play. We always have the power to invent.
For his birthday I bought my husband a book, leather bound and printed with his name on the front, to write down the halal recipes he makes. It’s full of his weird and wonderful concoctions, as well as a few of my simpler ones, invented and otherwise immediately forgotten. We refer to the book when we want to make halal recipes we’ve made up in the past that were successful for a second or third time, for us, or for friends, now proven to work! I glance over the general ingredients to get a picture of the flavours, and he gets out the measuring jug.
We can use non-halal and halal recipes as guides from which to diverge, cutting out the little paths we imagine digressing from the page. If it’s ain’t broke, don’t fix it, is a fine philosophy, and it’s true that some recipes are too precious to tamper with, because they’re perfect as they are, or they’re full of memories. But where there’s an opportunity, let’s take it. Go wild. Peanut butter goes well on beef burgers, don’t cha know? Liquorish works with salmon. Sounds terrible? Try it. And less outlandish things like swapping tomato in a salad for watermelon is a simple, sweet substitution.
In some ways, it’s being a kid again, playing with your food. But ultimately it’s being flexible, adding a little or a lot of imagination, and remembering that (in most cases) the recipe is under your control.
In a simpler way, I like the idea that being adaptable with food means we can be more generous too. If we can quickly add more to dinner without much fuss if more people arrive than expected, happily upsetting the weighing scales, then we can share it.
The word ‘recipe’ has medical origins, coming from the Latin recipere meaning to receive: it applied to prescriptions. We can see then why each element ought to probably have been added with due care. Pharmacists, even medieval ones, are probably more precise than impressionists. Perhaps we can find a cooking style that works on the basis of a little bit of both, and relish even more recipes…
Psst! While you’re here, why not check out our delicious veal recipe, or our scrumptious lamb chops, and add your own twist – or why not use our classic recipe to invent your own tagine? You can find more inspiration for traditional recipes, to stay true to or adapt, on this food blog, which we just love.