Indo cooking is not always easy if you have to learn it from someone in the family. In most cases, passing down a recipe happens verbally and it is based on feeling and personal taste. My mother prepares food without recipes and mostly by intuition. She owns no measuring spoons nor cups. Yet she is able to whip up the most delicious dishes. Often you hear people say: when I ask my grandmother how to make something, her response is “take a little of this and a little of that”. I remember aunts talking to each other about a recipe at the dinner table, which reminded me of a cartoon that I had seen online about how Indo women talk about their recipes. See drawing below.
Text is a Dutch-based creole language that originated among the Dutch Indo people (of mixed Dutch and Indonesian heritage).
In English: “Just boil all the raw and pickled vegetables and then mix the whole stuff together with about seven seeds ground Jengkol, very simple…” Image borrowed from internet.
As my grandmother ‘Oma’ Keasberry always used to say about Indo cooking: “You have to have the hand for it!” Explained as having the skill or knack for it. Indonesian word for hand is: Tangan – Tanganan. I say: Yes, Grandma that’s just fine and dandy, but it is not so easy to develop that hand and taste if you were not born with the talent. However, it is not mission impossible. Getting a recipe from a family member (grandmother, mom) is a challenge. If it is not available in writing, it comes down to you documenting it all. And then, in my experience, it often goes like this: How much mom? A bit of this … and what else? A bit of that! Not too much and not too little! And how much rice? Well, a handful. Is that an Indonesian hand or a Dutch hand? By cube, you mean a sugar cube? And how much butter? A lump! And the size of the onion? As big as a fist! OK, whose fist? And how much water does it have for sauce? Well, the sauce should not be too thin and not too thick! Okay… ! And what ingredient, do they still sell that? And when to serve? Well, if it is not too hot and not too cold! Uh, right…! In short, learning to cook is best for the people who are good at it. Together in the kitchen and taking notes and ‘learning to taste’. That development is important! So off we go into the kitchen and trying to convert everything into exact quantities and weights.
When it comes to learning, the best advice I can give you is to learn by doing. Preferably in the kitchen of the person you want to learn it from. Grandmother, mother, father etc. Now with these smart phones you can make you own video and record what they are doing. Also, learn to train your taste buds. Retain that special taste and get as many secrets as you can. Sometimes the one passing down a recipe, omits an ingredient which makes the dish taste different. Many cooks are self-taught. Remembering how something should taste and keep trying until they get it right. Take a cookbook (my Indo Dutch Kitchen Secrets for instance) as basis and then adjust the recipe to your own liking. To get the right taste, I see my mother do the following: she just taps the spatula on the mouse of her hand, licks it and then adjusts by adding something to it. Yes, she says, it must all be properly flavored and it must remain balanced!
If you haven’t got the skills yet, watch cooking shows or take cooking classes. Focus on the tips. Also, if you want to try a recipe learn to make the original one and after that make it your own. Switch out some ingredients to suit your taste. Add some more sambal to spice things up. It’s about feeling comfortable with improvising. Before you know it you will be the intuitive cook who’s able to whip up a delicious meal on the fly.