Like many Asian cooks, my mother never bothers with standard measuring cups and spoons. This made it incredibly challenging during my time as her apprentice when she was demonstrating a new dish.
“And then you add some salt and sugar….” she would say, as she quickly scooped some salt and sugar from their respective jars and added them to the sizzling wok.
“Hang on,” I would interrupt. “How much salt is that? One teaspoon?”
“Oh, I’m not too sure. Just agak-agak how much you need,” would come the vague reply. Oh… those were the days when I wanted to hit my head against the wall in frustration.
Agak-agak is a Malay phrase that means ‘estimate’. Or more accurately, ‘guesstimate’. When applied to cooking, the cook makes an educated guess as to how much of a particular ingredient is needed, tasting and adjusting as she goes. It’s a skill that takes plenty of experience.
Asian cooks from the older generations tend to be ambivalent towards cookbooks, because they learnt how to cook by watching others. Traditionally, recipes were passed down orally and consisted of a mere list of ingredients. There were no hard-and-fast measures, because the focus was on the taste of the dish.
Despite the initial frustrations, I soon learnt to cook in the same way: taste, adjust seasoning, taste again. And once I got the hang of it, I began to appreciate the advantages of cooking by taste.
Firstly, it allows the cook to replicate the exact taste of a dish each and every time. While the recipe remains the same, the taste and quality of each ingredient often differs from time to time. For instance, the taste of condiments such as soy sauce varies across brands. Also, the flavour and intensity of herbs and vegetables may change according to the seasons. By tasting and adjusting, you’ll be able to control these variables and ensure a consistent taste each time the dish is made.
Unlike baking where proportions must be exact, cooking allows for plenty of customisation and experimentation. Do you like your food sweet? Add more sugar! On a low-sodium diet? Reduce the salt- or omit entirely. Use recipes as a guide, so once you know how a dish made, feel free to adjust the taste to your individual liking.
Most importantly, cooking by estimation is liberating. There’s no fiddling with a set of measuring spoons, trying to find the 1/4 teaspoon while the food burns in the pan. Just grab the nearest spoon available and go.
Of course, the main caveat of cooking in this way is that it’s easy to add the wrong amount of seasoning by mistake. Here the ‘less is more’ mantra is key. Add a bit at a time.
With enough practice and experience, you’ll be able to add the right amount of seasoning without much thought. In fact, it becomes a natural and automatic process. And in time, you’ll be able to create your own signature dishes, using a favourite recipe customised to exactly the way you want it.