What cooking, chaos and confidence can do for your writing

“Suitable for vegans,” the label read. Score. I added the puff pastry to my basket ignoring the niggle in my mind asking why it didn’t just say “vegan.” I could Google the answer later. If it wasn’t an acceptable level of vegan, I could do mashed potatoes as the pie topping instead. Nobody would mind. I added a selection of non-meats to the basket too: meatless gyros, not meat balls, chick’n pieces. I wasn’t sure which I would use but it’d come to me on the day. I wanted a rich gravy with a good kick of spice and a mushroomy aftertaste. We’d have peas with it so that could add in sweetness to the spicy… I added frozen peas to the basket too. Was I done? I think I was done. Honestly, I had most of the things already.

This dinner had been in the works for a few months, before half my guests had even arrived in the country. My brother and his wife were visiting from China for my wedding week and would stay for a week after. This second, listless week in the wedding afterglow was the opportunity to strike with a dinner party in my home – and we’d have pie. When my brother and I were little, our mother would make this gorgeous, moreish chicken pie with puff pastry crust every year for my brother’s birthday. She began with pre-made puff pastry and a whole chicken and ended with this slow-cooked, creamy, umami masterpiece. My brother loves this pie. It’s the family pie.

But he is now vegan and we need a new family pie. Also I just wanted pie. So I did fruit platters, a vegan chick’n pie with veggies, and a vegan cheesecake.

“So, how are you going to make it chickeny?” My husband was unfolding the dinner table.

“Erm… mushrooms?” I piled my ingredients onto the kitchen counter, half of which would never be used.

“Maybe you should look at some recipes.” The table snapped into place.

I hissed at him and closed the kitchen door. Time to work.

Much brewing later, I arrived at something rich and creamy (pea protein!) with chick’n bits and mushrooms. It was somehow tomatoey but still spicy. It was covered in a flaky puff pastry and it was….not at all what I had set out to make. I mean, it was nothing like my mother’s pie. That often happens when I cook though, because I eschew all recipes. I have an idea and I try various things to arrive at that idea and it’s often successful! It’s sometimes unsuccessful… but still tasty! And very occasionally, it’s unsuccessful and just… alright. It’s never bad though. I have very rarely made anything inedible. In fact, the only time I have truly made weird, inedible food has been when I bake. Because you definitely need a recipe when baking. And I eschew all recipes. Sometimes I oversalt a curry, but that’s what yoghurt is for.

Food is playful to me and I have the best audience in my husband who is not picky, has good insights for how to edit a dud food and is honest with me. I had an idea today to use up leftover chicken soup by cooking white rice in it. I added water and some flavours to it but rice needs flavouring far more than soup juice so it ended up bland and we had to add all sorts to it to save it. But… I made enough for 2 days and we finished it in an evening – so my version of a “dud” isn’t really a bad thing. We eat our food in this house.

And we ate the pie. Like… we destroyed it.

I am usually a mopey moo about my personal self-worth but you may have guessed that that does not extend to cooking. I am a confident cook. I will still talk myself down as a base instinct but deep down, I am confident in my ability to feed others. And I was praised and that was nice. And I was then asked for a recipe and my stomach just smacked the floor.

My brother likes pie. He is vegan. I made vegan pie. He likes it. Obviously he will want to recreate the pie! But I don’t really remember what I did…

“But, what did you put in it?” My sister in law pressed using her diplomatic, teacher voice.

Should I mention that we had Hoisin sauce near it’s expiration date so I washed it out into the pie mix? How much of the onion gravy did I use? I measured nothing! I just… upended jars.

“It has pea protein!” I declare triumphantly. They had sent us the pea protein.

They all stared.

“Well, this is how we cook!” That’s my mum. She’d been very happily munching away next to me. She even gave me a “you did well” which, if you’re South Asian, you’ll know is peak parental approval. My father even said it had “okay spice.” The joy!! I mean I was buzzing! Fizzing! Frothing!!

Who doesn’t love feeding people and having them ask for more?! But the shame of not being able to provide more…

“I could send you a list of what I put in it…” I croak, desperately trying to remember if I had opted to add the ketchup or not.

My brother proceeded to his lectern to explain how I should write down my recipes. It was a succint blend of reproach for not being organised and encouragement for being a skilled cook. There was also a thread of “creating a family legacy” woven in there. A solid 7/10 for him.

But they left without a recipe. I simply could not provide one and I could sense my sister-in-law, who collects recipes, was somewhat baffled. I think she thought it was cool that I didn’t need a recipe. But I felt I wasn’t being inclusive for her. When you’re good at something… it can be difficult to backtrack and break down your knowledge in a way that others can understand. I was a teacher for a number of years so I can recognise that I’m being a bad cooking teacher.

But I’m secretly quite proud of myself. I tend to rely on external validation to feel secure in my achievements. And until I get that praise, I am on the fence about anything I create. With the pie, I was sure it would taste nice. I was just unsure if the difference in taste from my mother’s pie would be a deal breaker. A silly concern in hindsight. But, I was confident that my pie would taste good. The knowledge that what I did is something not everyone in my family can do also makes me realise I’ve come a long way as an amateur cook.

I wonder why I don’t feel this way about other creative pursuits. It takes me ages to feel confident enough to create a blog post or finish a drawing, let alone share them with the world. But with food there is only this sense of joy. I’m like a food witch, sniffing my herbs and spices and concocting my brew. Or that rat from Ratatouille. Little rat witch. My mother’s teaching style never vibed with me so I taught myself how to cook using videos, recipes, spying on others. I come from a culture that loves food and sets you up to know how food works and how to cook. I know how to pick the best vegetables and fruits from a market. I know when something is oversalted or underspiced. I know the shape of things because I was raised in it, even if I wasn’t explicitly taught it.

And none of that is true for writing or drawing. I want to engage with it, but I have not been raised within those particular arts. I can express myself with food because within my tribe, food is celebrated. But the other arts… I pursue them from a different angle.

I look for recipes.

My sister-in-law told me that she does not come from a household that cooks. She’d tried going vegan before but not being able to cook made it a struggle. So she uses recipes as her stepping stone. I realise I need to do the same… with writing. It needs to become play. But before cooking became play, I used videos, recipes and spied on others. I learned to cook because I wanted to mix things and eat them. I write because I want to swirl my thoughts and get them out. I need a writing recipe.

I feel like I’ve learned something about myself.

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Oh! I forgot to Google why it was “suitable for vegans” and not just “vegan.”

I’m sure it’s fine…

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