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How to carry on a family recipe, in your own way19:32
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 (LA Johnson/NPR)
(LA Johnson/NPR)

Recreating a family dish can be intimidating. It was for me! Coming from a Palestinian family, the dishes we make are complex and laborious. It also doesn't help that my mom never wrote down any of her recipes.

So if you're like me and don't have a recipe, or maybe you have a recipe with instructions that aren't very clear — we have some tips for you.

Noor Wazwaz, podcaster and host of this Life Kit episode, rolling grape leaves as a kid. (Courtesy of Noor Wazwaz)

Joudie Kalla is a chef and author of the cookbooks Palestine on a Plate and Baladi. She says that too many people have a lot of fear then they cook because they want to make family dishes so perfectly.

Throw your expectations out the window. Do NOT expect that your dish will be the same as the one you grew up eating, and don't even try comparing!

Kalla says comparison is a killer and it will make you lose your confidence. Even if you've been a professional chef for years, the reality is that your food will never taste like your mom's or grandma's. That's because it's not your mom's or grandmas: what you're making is your own. Everybody has their own touch.

The goal isn't perfection, and we shouldn't only celebrate a perfect dish.

We should celebrate the preparation, the energy, the effort, the memories — everything it took to create the dish.

Be ready to experiment, but experiment thoughtfully!

Recipes are a roadmap. You don't have to follow them exactly. It's OK to deviate.

But as you experiment and try new things, you want to make sure you're also listening to what your gut is telling you. When it comes to adding spices, Kalla says it's always best to start with less and then add more as you go. Once you've added too much of a spice, it's pretty much impossible to rectify it, because it's already absorbed into your food. So the best practice is to go in slowly with the spices, and taste your product before you dive into making the rest of it. And as you keep adjusting and adding spices, taste it until you get the flavor you want, then stop! By doing this, you're training yourself to get better at tasting.

Kalla says, "You always have to make mistakes, because you'll never forget them, so you'll never repeat them. And this is the best thing I learned as a chef and as a cook — is that mistakes are always good, because they will show you how to not do it again next time."

You have cooking instincts, and sometimes they're trying to tell you something. So listen.

Kalla says everyone has cooking instincts. If you can taste and sense flavors when you eat food, then you have cooking instincts. We naturally have an inkling inside telling us that a dish needs something or it should taste like this.

It's understandable that you'd want to be exact about every teaspoon, but Kalla says it's important to understand the feel of a recipe. You'll start to learn and recognize how something should taste, smell and feel. When you intentionally stop and use all of your senses, you're strengthening your cooking skills.

If you look at what you're making and you see that it doesn't look, taste or smell right, you can work on ways to fix it. Kalla says this is a good thing, because your senses are already speaking to you by telling you there's something missing, or you've put too much of something. Your body is teaching you from memory.

Be curious and start conversations with your family members. You'll also get the added bonus of getting to know them better.

At the end of the day, family recipes aren't just recipes. They're memories and stories and emotions. And family recipes make all that accessible every time we cook.

You can use cooking as an opportunity to unlock some memories. Maybe you come from a culture that doesn't talk about feelings or a family that's bad at communicating. Cooking can be the perfect — and convenient — excuse to talk about these things.

Priya Parker is the host of the podcast Together Apart. She's also the author of the book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

She says we can use cooking with family members as an opportunity to unlock some memories, but we shouldn't feel pressure to get all the stories and conversations in one sitting.

Parker also says that family dishes don't have to be multi-process recipes. They can be the grilled cheese sandwich or funfetti cake you grew up eating. As she says, "The meaning lies at some level in either a shared memory or in an inherited memory."


The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen.

We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

For more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.

Copyright NPR 2022.

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