The most intimidating cuisines are the unfamiliar ones. Even experienced cooks can fall when contemplating strange ingredients and patterns of cookery. This is true for me when working on French sauces, curries, even vegetarian food. Your instincts can desert you when all the usual cues are absent.
My native cuisine would probably be seventies to nineties English – pastry, quiches, béchamel and bolognese sauce, oven chips, meat and two veg. This is all great stuff, but leaves you with a deficit when it comes to creating a spice base, or a cuisine such as Chinese that virtually never uses the oven. It even presents a challenge to cooking vegetarian food without a great deal of dairy, as I’m constantly fighting my built-in instinct for some protein (meat, eggs) plus a starch and some veg on the side. (A better pattern for healthy eating is to start with a grain, add two or three veg, and maybe some protein to garnish, but it took me a long time to work out that this was a credible option.)
When faced with unfamiliar territory, you are left with two options: get the cookbook, buy all the ingredients and follow the instructions to the letter, in the hope of producing something authentic. Then end up not making the dishes regularly enough to justify the litre of fish sauce, the 200g bag of turmeric or the block of tamarind. Or just buy a ready meal.
Two things liberated me from this idea. One is the premise that you can make base components for many dishes in a form that can be easily stored for long periods. This is true of homemade curry powder, curry sauce base (that can be frozen) and even Pad Thai sauce, which as Chez Pim advises, can be made in a large quantity and stored in the fridge for (nearly) instant Pad Thai gratification. (Completely love her Pad Thai recipe, and it’s the only one that gave me the confidence to do it at home – the blog format had enough space and detailed description to reassure me).
The other realisation is hard to reach, but comes from a deeper understanding of the particular cues and necessities of each cuisine. Understanding the bones, the structure of stir fry cooking, or North Indian curries can liberate you as much as understanding the science behind baking can. You can suddenly see in a recipe what is essential, and what is optional. You understand where to make sensible substitutions and where it will ruin the dish. After all, many of the international dishes we love come from home or peasant cooking, where no-one is adhering to exactly the same recipe every time.
One of the books that started me on this path was the Pat Chapman book, ‘Quick After Work Curries‘, a hand-me-down hardback that made it suddenly plain to me that a fried onion, some good curry powder, tomato paste, chicken and stock and a little yoghurt could be make into a good basic curry. It might not be authentic, and would depend crucially on the quality of the curry powder. But it would nonetheless be good, tasty, and amenable to lots of experimentation.
Ching-He Huang’s Chinese Food Made Easy did something similar for my stir fries. It was the TV programme that, by simple repetition, got it into my head that a good stir fry would start with garlic, chilli and ginger fried in hot oil very briefly, before adding the protein, and maybe a splash of rice wine. Yes, you can marinade the meat, you can play with different flavours and sauces. But if you can strip the process down to the absolute essentials (very hot wok, those key flavours) then you are liberated to throw something together based on whatever’s in the fridge, and you don’t need to drag out the books every time.
There is a huge amount I need to learn about all sorts of cuisines – Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, South indian, Sichuan, Greek… But starting to understand the unspoken, the common sense of another culture starts to unlock it and gives you a skeleton on which you hang all the variations and other pieces of knowledge.