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Perfecting the dish

My iterative steps to getting a dish right

· Reflections,Tips

Our repertoire has increased dramatically over the years since we started this journey and the majority of the time it involves finding out ways to bring the dish to its full potential. Tons of trial and errors, aimless backtracking and disasters later, I realized there was some kind of framework that I seem to follow. This is especially important when one is creating your own recipes with no backing of time tested recipe to follow.

So I thought I straightened out my framework and share it with you as well. Before we go on, it seems apt, to begin with, my food philosophy. Good cooking is understanding how to best to coax maximum flavour out of the ingredients you have at your disposal. All around the world, the best cuisines were created by the seemingly low quality of local ingredients available to them, and through sheer ingenuity and innovation, find ways to make them into timeless classics we have known today. I always stand by, the best cuisines we have around the world, was all once peasant food. If you are using all the best ingredients money can buy for your first recipe testing, is that still good cooking or just overcompensating? That leads me to my first point, getting the basic right!

All around the world, the best cuisines were created by the seemingly lower quality of local ingredients available to them​

Phase One - Getting the basics right

At this stage, don't worry about the quality of the ingredients you are using for your first recipe try out or Mark 1 as we like to call it. If you are using the best ingredients available, you will not be able to get a baseline of the robustness of the recipe. Get the technique right, understand what the recipe is doing, the purpose of each of the steps. At this stage, there is plenty of chance of a major screw up due to the technique or unforeseen circumstance the recipe is not translated properly to your ingredients and environment. Taking the example of a souffle, if it doesn't even rise, try again. If it rose improperly, try to figure out the problem. If it rose well, good job, over to phase 2. Most importantly, remember to write down the successful recipe somewhere!

Phase 2 - Improving the recipe

Congratulations on your successful try. At this stage, it may not meet your expectations fully but you have successfully executed the recipe and have a handle on the technique and skills required. It is now time to review the ingredients list and identify if the proportion needs tweaking. Is the dish missing an element of Umami, is the dish lacking an element of acidity to balance out the dish? What is the desired flavour profile that you want to achieve? Assess the recipe. tweak it and try again. Perfect the dish with the ingredients easily available to you and tweak it further to improve its flavour. Remember, good cooking is about learning to bring out the best situation of what you have at hand. Don't go shelling out the dollars for an imported Carabinero (really expensive prawn) just yet for your dish. Keep tweaking until you are unable to improve the flavours with the ingredients available to you. The dish is now ready for its final tweak. :)

Phase 3 - Upgrade the ingredients where it matters

For 4 years of my university studies, I studied systems engineering and the key principle that stuck was that you got to balance the system or in this case the recipe. Having top-notch ingredients for everything in the recipe sometimes brings little to the flavours, and sometimes, it may even bury the flavours of some of the great things you use. There is a delicate balance of finding which ingredients contribute the most to the flavour, and where trading up to the quality, makes the most difference to the final product. Like anything in the world, the marginal diminishing returns law is applicable, beyond a certain price point, you get a lower marginal increase in flavours.

In this phase, I would start scrutinising the varietal of the ingredient. For example, which prawns would we use? Breaking down the different types of prawns, each has its own unique flavours and depth. In Singapore, we have common access to Vannamei, Tiger, Banana, Glass and sometimes, Sua Lor prawns. After much trial and error, we decided that for our Paella, Tiger prawns seem to give the best results. Similarly, we did the same trail with clams, you can find out more about our experiment with clams at this link!

Should you scrutinise the whole recipe's ingredient list and find no opportunity to trade up. Congratulations, I believe your dish is almost perfect.

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