Measuring Up – Self Doubt While Cooking Pakistani Food the Not-So Old-Fashioned Way

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not too cultural. However, as “un-cultural” as I am, I really like Pakistani food. My mom is an excellent cook, Masha’Allah (Yes, this does warrant a “Masha’Allah”), so over the years, I’ve been learning how to make various dishes just the way my mom makes it. Sometimes, this works. Other times, while the dish turns out just fine, it would be missing a certain taste that only seems to emerge when my mom cooks it. I’ve resolved to get better though.

When I first started learning how to cook ages ago, I was able to have my mom do something that she never did in all her time cooking – I got her to commit to actual measurements of spices and other ingredients that would go into a dish so I could write it all down and remember it for the future. When I first started asking her about how much of certain ingredients go into specific dishes, her response of “andaaze se”, which means you go with whatever you think it should be, didn’t work for me. I needed everything in the proper teaspoons/tablespoons/cups form.

It was a huge achievement on my part and one that I heard many others of my generation had been unable to get their own moms to do.

But now I wonder if I’m doing it all wrong.

I recently watched the movie Today’s Special streaming through Netflix. Written and starring Aasif Mandvi and sort of based on his one man show Sakina’s Restaurant, the movie is about a former Manhattan sous-chef who has to keep his father’s Indian restaurant in Queens running after his dad suffers a heart attack. For the purpose of clarification, this is not, in fact, a movie version of the Canadian kids show Today’s Special that used to run on PBS when I was a little kid right after (or before?) Mr. Roger’s Neigborhood. That show was about a mannequin who came to life in a department store and included a supporting cast of puppets. I know what you all are thinking – “I would love to see a movie based on that version of Today’s Special!” Me too my friends, me too.

The cast of Today's Special

Back to the movie.

Mandvi’s character Samir gets Akbar, an NYC taxi driver who used to be a cook in Mumbai, to temporarily become the cook at his father’s restaurant. Played by Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah, Akbar’s methods are much different than anything Samir is used to. Samir’s cooking, although good, was categorized as a “paint by numbers” kind of approach. He’s all about doing everything by the book, including making sure everything is measured out for the appropriate proportions. Akbar is much different and cooks according to how he feels, never measuring anything out. To Akbar, the passion of the cook will be reflected in the cooking. You can’t be passionate if you rely too much on other things to tell you how much of what spice you need.

I’m thinking this was meant to be a metaphor for life but I went ahead and took it literally.

Have I made a mistake by learning how to use measurements in my cooking? My mom cooks as she always did so it’s not like I steered her down a path of cooking devoid of any emotion but I’m wondering if I have accidentally hindered by ability to cook well, to cook with passion, because I insisted on having the proper measurements for everything. Maybe this is why I have been unable to replicate the exact taste of my mother’s food in certain dishes. I tried to be like my mom, really. I would dip my fingers in the red pepper to pinch just the right amount of spice but it never worked.

But then I realized something.

Today’s Special is just a movie.

I shouldn’t take the movie to be a critique of how Pakistani/Indian food should be made. Yes, maybe my mom has the wonderful, magical touch when it comes to cooking (I’m not indulging in hyperbole here) but it doesn’t mean that eventually I can’t get there with my teaspoons and tablespoons. Honestly, I wouldn’t even have known where to begin if it weren’t for all the measurements. Maybe I never would have even started to learn how to cook in the first place due to the frustration of it all. My place in the kitchen would have been forever stuck in the role of dish/pot washer. At least now I have some sort of ability to cook and am making my way through the long list of Pakistani dishes I love to eat and want to learn how to make. Who knows? Eventually, I could be the one to tinker around with recipes the way my mom has over the years, to make them better, and go from precision to “andaaze se”.

In the interim, I’ll continue to use my methods. Gotta learn somehow!

10 thoughts

  1. I think its best to start off learning how to cook with measurements and when you do feel comfortable with a dish is when you can start cooking with “passion” or how I like to say “le pash-yon”. You have to start somewhere right?

  2. Bushra,
    Excellent post. I think there is way more ingredients for life than you might see being the cook, but as the patron to your restaurant of life, I think you are well on your way to being a great cook. I loved that PBS show, especially Sam Crenshaw the old dude.

    Keep writing. I’ll keep reading.


    1. I appreciate that Tony! I think now I might look up the PBS show on Youtube or something just to see how it’s held up over the years…

  3. Is the endeavor of trying to get your mom to quantify her recipes a particularly desi one? I ask because I had to go through (and still go through) the same rigamarole when I attempt to cook her dishes. (Her response was also identical to your mom’s).

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