07 January 2011

Difficulty of writing a recipe

Please read this real quickly.

If you don't feel like clicking, I'll copy paste a bit from it.

The recipes aren't very specific as well. Some dishes will require 2 large tomatoes, chopped. Yet what is large to one person can be small to another. I would have preferred a direct measurement like 3 cups chopped tomatoes. Some dishes will call for 2 to 3 green chilis. Well, what kind of green chilis? Serrano? Jalapeno? Poblano? Bell peppers? We overcooked our mangoes into a mushy mess on our first attempt because the recipe required simmering in water, but how much water?

Also, the recipes do not specify exact serving amounts rendered, for example the fishcake recipe simply states "Serves 4". Ok, but how many fishcakes does it make? 4? 6? 8? We ended up with 12 fishcakes from a doubled recipe. Somehow the math didn't add up. There is a definite assumption with this cookbook that one is a somewhat experienced cook and/or familiar with Indian cooking.

My friend Chuck is a rather accomplished cook. I remember when he first started his journey, and he could knock up a rather nice pizza dough, and put various toppings on for a lovely dinner. Unfortunately, he hadn't ventured out too far from said pizza dough. Then he blossomed overnight somehow, and recently shared pictures of his bread baking adventures, many of which made me want to book a flight to Alabama, and schlep the however many hours it takes to get to his particular small town. Why do I mention Chuck? Because to him, the book seemed a fine book, and one that made plenty of sense for my way of thinking: get a few good pantry staples, combine them with a few fresh ingredients, and sort out dinner in 20 minutes or so.

Unfortunately, for those folk who are unfamiliar with cooking in general, or that particular cuisine, such things are not so simple. One needs to be highly specific. While writing my book, I had to learn that lesson the hard way, because what I assume to be the norm is anything but. I recall asking someone to use a tin of chickpeas. In my brain, it was the 16 oz tin, which holds about two cups (give or take) of beans. In her mind, it was the one double that size, because that's what she buys all the time.

And, as the reviewer mentioned, "two large" isn't as specific as "two large tomatoes (roughly the size of your fist)", or even better "two large tomatoes, which yield about 1 1/2 cups of chopped tomato", so that you know that you're working with similar quantities. If the exact amount doesn't really matter much, then /say/ so. "I'm calling for ___________ amount of onions, but if you have more or less, it won't hurt anything" would be a useful thing to mention. Come to think of it, I wish I did mention those guidelines in future, so that people who are unfamiliar with the recipe feel confident to try it. I think I'll do that in the future when it comes up.

Another thing she mentioned is that they couldn't find some of the ingredients, and had to make replacements. I know that in mine, I gave instructions on replacing ingredients. I guess it's one of those things that you have to specify, or someone will try to substitute something that won't work, or substitute in places where you can't, and disaster ensues.

I find that reading the reviews on cookery books is enlightening, and helps me to learn to tighten up my own work. Thank you, review writer. You're a star for being so specific in your feedback.

EDIT: PS. I'd most likely consider the book to be quite entertaining, much like Chuck did, because I /am/ familiar with Indian cooking, and its nuances. I don't know about being an accomplished cook, but I do know my way around a spice pantry.