Monday, May 17, 2010

The cook, the artist -How to love with food

When you look back over your life you realise there were times when your attitude towards a certain person or event or task, or some other thing, changed. It's not always possible to identify the moment of change. For me though, I can recall the exact event which caused my attitude towards cooking to change and evolve over time.
Some years back (actually just after the turn of this century), I saw the movie "Tortilla Soup" with Hector Elizondo and Elizabeth Pena. Thank goodness for wikipedia because now I can put this link here for you to read all about it if you haven't seen it .
And click  here for a short trailer which shows some of the delectable images which changed my attitude towards cooking.

I do not remember  too much of the storyline, but over the years there was one image that stayed with me. When I saw those opening close- ups of Martin Naranjo preparing a meal in a well appointed Mexican kitchen, I was mesmerized. The images made you open your eyes and salivate over something that you couldn't even smell.The colours of those vegetables, the homey sounds of the spoons and knives in action, the steam emanating from the pots, and the sheer efficiency with which the chef moved from one area of the prep table to the stove and back, gave me an instant paradigm shift.

This was not the way I reluctantly dragged myself around my kitchen, wishing that I could just eat out instead.
This was an artist in motion, his palette the colours of eggplant and avocados, bell peppers and cilantro, pumpkin flowers and tomatoes, corn and cheese.

After that I began to see my fresh ingredients in a whole new light. When the veil of jadedness is pierced, you finally begin to see the artistry of making food. Cooking does not have to be a chore. It is a channel for expressing your desire to create something that is unique to you. And cooking for people you care about, and feeling the appreciation for your endeavours, gives us another way to define ourselves. We can add 'cook' to our portfolio of roles.

Even more, I enjoy cooking with a partner who savours the experience as much as I do. What a whole new level on which to connect!...But that's another conversation...

When you see food as art that you can create, that is when you cook with love. It's been said, when some people cook you can feel the love that goes into it. Why does it taste different when your grandmother makes it special for you (assuming your grandmother cooks, of course!) ?
I have a theory on that based on my own experience. When I used to cook because I had to, because it was another chore, I would rush through the process, coarsely chopping the seasonings and other ingredients. Stuff it in the pot and be done with it was really the approach. Now I find myself savouring the colours and aromas from my raw ingredients ( none are raw meat...see below). I appreciate the goodness of my fresh materials and carefully grind and chop and blend. I think that feeling we put into it is the love we feel in the food.

It's unfortunate that some of us only see the drudgery of the kitchen. And drudgery it certainly is at times.
It is unfortunate when we cook only out of necessity, to save money. Or when we don't cook, to save time.

I never actually follow recipes (something to do with a hearty dislike for regimentation).
No, what I like is the excitement of creating something new out of "found" ingredients. (That's the stuff you find in and around your kitchen). And there's so much stuff to be found in the farmers' markets, the little ethnic groceries, and for the strong of heart, Chinatown. That's one of the things to love about Toronto. Such a vast landscape of ingredients waiting to be experimented on. Pity that much stuff comes with foreign language labels with no indication of whether it's fruit, dried animal or vegetable. Or if you're supposed to cook or eat it raw.
Nonetheless, I have found that the proprietors of the small establishments (when not overwhelmed with customers), are quite willing to translate or explain what you do with some of the quaint items on their shelves.
However not being a consumer of creatures that walk, run, or fly, I restrict myself to those that swim in seas,  rivers and other water courses.

Since moving to Toronto I've been so inspired by both wholesome and hearty foods, as well as exotic fare from the east that I now store spices, herbs and seasonings like star anise, pumpkin seed oil, coriander, galangal, cardomum, fenugreek, and many others.

Admittedly cooking is not entirely haphazard in method. You can throw ingredients together to see what emerges, but not all ingredients are made for each other.
It is good to look at the methods of various styles of cooking, just so as not to waste ingredients that don't sit well on the palate in certain combinations.

The cooking shows on tv and the posts on Youtube are an excellent starting point for getting an idea of methods and for picking up tips to save time and improve flavor among other things. If you want to cook beyond wholesome and hearty, then my friend, you may want to consider chef school.

For most of my life I cooked only for taste and enjoyment.
However I only recently became exposed to the specific health benefits of certain vegetables and spices.
While I have found no scientific surveys of the curative properties of certain foods, there is much anecdotal reference to the relation between these foods and the reduction of cancerous tumours and heart disease etc.

Please note that I am no expert, nor even educated in the relationship between food groups and disease.  The views that follow are my personal beliefs.

 My personal view is that because certain foods have been linked to, or 'studies show that' foods like garlic, broccoli, shitake mushrooms, flax seed, tumeric etc are known to reduce tumors, I would rather structure my diet to include these foods. In other words I no longer cook only for flavour, but incorporate the 'wonder foods' in those flavours.

As I say, it's my personal choice. But before I had started researching the healing properties of foods (beyond vitamins and minerals etc), I never knew about the recently identified phytonutrients in those foods that are linked to reducing specific diseases.

It is best to do your own research, speak to your nutritionist , doctor, wholistic practitioner etc, to make up your own mind.

Here are a couple books which I use that are a good starting point for bringing flavour and health benefits together:

Cooking with Foods That Fight Cancer  The Doctors Book of Food Remedies: The Newest Discoveries in the Power of Food to Treat and Prevent Health Problems-From Aging and Diabetes to Ulcers

And this is a link to a wonderful book by Carol Rajah with seafood recipes from places like Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, India and Pakistan name a few.
Seafood Sensation: More Than 150 of the Best Asian Seafood Recipes

Granted the stresses of daily living do not always conduce to spending time in the kitchen.
But when you do manage to find time to create, then cook with love, make art, and eat yourself to wellness.


  1. Great stuff aunt :)

  2. Thanks Rizie
    Glad that at least a couple nieces are reading my blog. the boys are not quite there yet!