Text and Images by Sheere Ng @ Makansutra
I am convinced that anyone who still performs this series of tasks is as saintly as Mother Teresa. The saintly cooking version of Mother Teresa, that is:
Tear off the skin of onions and garlic, and with one hand on the knife’s handle and the other above the tip of the blade, mince them in a see-saw motion; or squeeze grated coconut in a tub of water repeatedly until it makes a sufficiently thick and white coconut milk; or pound the spices with a pestle and mortar until they fuse together and then stir-fry it slowly until the spicy aroma rises from the wok and dances through the air.
But when I tried playing Mother Teresa recently, I was defeated hands down by shortcuts in a pack, or what most people know as premixes.
From simple offerings like sweet and sour sauce, the premix packet range has expanded in recent years to include more sophisticated flavours such as chilli crab and rendang. Their increase in popularity makes me wonder if I have underestimated their worth, which I had thought was mere convenience.
So to find out if premixes, when stripped down to just taste, are as favourable as food made of fresh ingredients and cooked from scratch, I invited a few friends for a taste test.
The two dishes I cooked were laksa and chilli crab, each with a premix and an elbow grease version.
elbow grease chilli crab
I was expecting a landslide win in my elbow grease version because I notice a clear difference in taste.
But I was wrong.
There was no heated debate or strong support for either side (for elbow grease side I was hoping), only lukewarm reactions after much probing. If it was a Euro match it must have been Greece versus Poland. (a frustrating draw)
elbow grease laksa
My guinea pigs, all young working adults who although are not gourmands but have had their fair share of good food, preferred the elbow grease laksa because it is “stronger” in taste. However, they also didn’t mind the premix for the opposite reason – that it was gentle in flavour.
As for the chilli crab, the premix version took the lead because it has a closer flavour to those sold at restaurants (I was told by the developer of the premix herself that many major restaurants are her clients). My concoction of the chilli paste lacked the punch and is a little too spicy for most of them.
premix chilli crab, the winner
This taste test is not about a comparison of recipes but to find out if my romantic idea of preparing food like how all the grandmothers used to do is worthwhile.
Even though the elbow grease laksa won, the less than enthusiastic reaction did not justify the more than two hours of preparation. The chilli crab, even with a stock of chicken bones and ikan bilis, simply failed.
If that’s the case, why still bother to cook from scratch?
Yes I am not an expert in cooking, but so are you, you and you. Unless your hands can do magic, premixes now seem to me a more reasonable way to cook. They take only fraction of the time and leave you, at the end of the session, in a reasonably good mood to enjoy your meal or entertain your guests.
After preparing for the taste test, I barely had the appetite to eat. I even dreaded stepping into the kitchen for a week (a long time by my standard).
Premixes do the opposite by empowering even the novice in the kitchen, hence enticing them to put on an apron.
But I’m not advocating using premixes as a replacement for all cooking, as during the taste test I already saw the potential downside.
After revealing to my guests that I made one of the laksa from scratch, one of them asked me, looking perturbed, how did I do it. And when I told him the cooking process, he looked like he just discovered the iPhone. I bet he also doesn’t know that curry powder isn’t organic but is a mixture of turmeric, coriander, chilli and cumin powder.
This reminds me of the time I heard about children who think milk comes from supermarkets, except this friend of mine is a 28-year-old.
Not knowing what your food comprises of, besides the fact that it does not do your health any good, is especially a shame in Singapore’s context when our food is a testament to our multi-ethnicity.
How do you explain that chilli crab is a melding of western, Malay and Chinese cooking when people don’t know what’s in it?
So use premixes only after learning how to cook the dish from scratch. Besides, only then will one know how to improvise it.
As a Chinese proverb says: “Learn how to walk before you try to fly.”