I wanted to title this post The Sound and the Curry but neither of the recipes I am going to talk about were curries even though this is a tale told by an idiot. With that out of the way I want to talk with you today about how a recipe is a story. I have always compared cooking to writing but it is really more like storytelling as a whole. There are some recipes that are family stories passed down through generations, others are translations where we substitute one ingredient for another, and others are masterpieces that can only be crafted by the most skilled hands.
A recipe is a story and here is my first from the other day. It starts with a honey festival. It starts with me bringing home two 1 lbs jars of honey. One light and one dark. It continues with me not knowing what to make for dinner and seeing the recipe book my wife got at the honey festival. I look over the book and see the recipe for Honey 5-Spice Chicken Thighs. I have all those things. I have everything in the recipe in fact, but I’m not in the mood for 5-Spice. I’m not in the mood for backed chicken.
It is here the story begins to change. The most eloquent depiction of storytelling I have heard so far in my life was about the tales of King Arthur. The sword is the sword whether it is Excalibur or Caliburn and whether it is pulled from a stone or given to Arthur by a lady in a lake. Elements change but they are the same. They are shadows of intent.
I didn’t feel like 5-Spice. I felt like honey and I felt like chicken, but I wanted to change some elements. So just as one storyteller in the distant past changed Excalibur to Caliburn I changed 5-Spice to paprika and cayenne pepper. Then I decided I was going to braise the chicken instead of baking it.
This decision, however, was made in the morning. By evening the recipe had marinated in my mind and changed even more. Here is a Ship of Theseus type question for you, and perhaps wait until the end to answer. Am I still making the same recipe? Had I changed too much or did it not matter because the inspiration existed in that recipe?
As I said I wasn’t done with changes. I was losing my taste for naked chicken as well. I felt like a honey glaze, especially a spicy one, belonged on crispy chicken. So when it came time to cook the chicken I put all thoughts of honey sauce and spices to the side. I pulled out the flour, eggs, corn meal, and lard and fried my chicken thighs. In a separate bowl I mixed my honey and spices and melted butter to be poured over the chicken after frying.
This is exactly how storytelling happens. I heard a story. The story of Honey 5-Spice Chicken Thighs and by the time it was my turn to tell that story it had become fried chicken with a spicy honey sauce. Did I replace too many elements to say I made that original recipe? Or is the inspiration all that matters?
For the second recipe things came about in a much different manner. One thing you never learn until it is too late is that American-Chinese food is regional. I grew up eating one type of Kung-Pao Chicken and just can’t find that where I live now. Here the chicken is cut into long wide flat strips whereas I am used to it being diced in small square chunks. Here there are also lots of green and red peppers whereas I am used to only peanuts and the occasional water chestnut. The sauce is also different. It is thinner and more soy sauce forward whereas the Kung-Pao chicken I grew-up on is much sweeter.
This means that if I want Kung-Pao Chicken the way I want it I have to make it myself. I have to tell my own story. As I haven’t the first idea of what goes into Kung-Pao chicken I had to look up a recipe. I found a number of recipes telling me to put in the green and red peppers. I didn’t like that idea. I wanted my morsels of meat and peanuts with nothing else. I kept looking and found those recipes but some didn’t have the peanuts and some used sesame oil as well as the soy sauce and vinegar. That didn’t taste right in my brain and I wasn’t about to do that in the pan.
I looked at four to six recipes for Kung-Pao Chicken. I took what was similar and followed that marinating the chicken in a mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar, and corn starch. Then in a separate bowl I mixed corn starch, hot pepper sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar, and rice vinegar. I smashed my garlic and threw it in the hot peanut oil in my wok with the peanuts we had in the cabinet. Then added the chicken and browned it up with ginger and black pepper while my rice cooked in the rice cooker.
Once the chicken was browned enough I added the sauce and coated everything. I’m not used to using corn starch when cooking and in fact think it is a lazy way to thicken sauce but all the recipes had it and I was trying to recreate a memory from a home far away. It worked but the sauce was too thick. Luckily for me I had excluded an ingredient from one of the recipes I looked at and added it, water, to the sauce at this point to loosen it up. It worked perfectly and my Kung-Pao Chicken looked the way I remembered. The taste wasn’t perfect. It could have used less vinegar and more brown sugar. Other than that it was as I remembered.
That is how stories are born. Is it not? Now I may or may not tell these stories again. I may tell them to my children throughout their lives and one might become their favorite which they will tell to their children and to their children’s children. The story will live and breathe and take on new life. It will reach generation after generation adapting to available ingredients and advancing cooking techniques. No matter how much it changes the recipe lives on and it’s roots wind back to its origin.