Recording recipes … behind the scenes

When I first started working on my cookbook, I really didn’t know what to expect.

I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Grace Young at the 2007 IACP conference in Chicago. The author of two family-based cookbooks, Grace gave me a behind-the-scenes overview of cooking with grandmas and aunties. Be prepared, was her number one advice.

And so I am.


Some tools of the trade

Every time I pay a visit to someone’s kitchen, my bag is packed with the following arsenal:
-Measuring cups
-Measuring spoons
-Notebook and pen
(I decided against a tape recorder though)

As you can imagine, it’s not easy juggling so much gear. I often feel like a character straight out of a Merry Melodies cartoon (though if I had to choose, I’d like to be the smart and feisty Road Runner … beep beep). Yes, it’s been comical–having to stop cooks at every step of the way to measure out the salt (2 teaspoons), the sesame oil (1 tablespoon), or the galangal (1-inch equals how many tablespoons minced??) And it’s not even funny anymore how many times I’ve had to fish packages out of the trash can to note down how many pounds of pork went into the soup.

Don’t forget that in between all this activity I’m taking photos (wait, hold that spatula in mid-air so I can capture your stir-fry motion!), and writing down notes (slice carrot on the diagonal not straight across), and timing (garlic is fragrant, add chicken to wok, start stopwatch now).

Everyone I’ve cooked with has been so very patient and they never fail to humor me. For this, I am very thankful.

Despite the flurry of activity that goes on when I’m out “in the field,” I feel that it’s actually the easiest and most accurate way to record recipes. And I get to taste the–always yummy–results immediately.

That being said, let’s turn to my other route for gathering recipes. Friends and strangers alike have been very generous in sending me their family recipes. Some have been easy-to-follow, requiring minimal tweaks here and there, yet others have been quite amusing. Take this list of ingredients my friend Luwei emailed me for her mom’s bakso goreng (crispy fried meatballs) recipe:

Bakso Goreng

(Luwei’s comments are in parentheses)
– 1kg minced pork
– 0.5kg minced prawn (you can halve the prawns and add 0.25kg fish as well, which is my mom’s friend’s recipe, but my mom sticks with prawn only)
– 2.5oz cornstarch (this is the iffy part–not sure how they figured that out since they don’t measure!)
– 8 eggs (another iffy part–seems like a lot of eggs to me, but my mom seems quite comfortable with that number)
– fish sauce
– salt
– sugar
– optional: green onion and rehydrated dried cuttlefish, diced (for crunch, but I don’t like it, and my mom doesn’t use it)

Recipes like these are priceless :).

No measurements, or iffy measurements–I don’t know which is better. But therein lies the beauty of homecooking: everything’s fluid, a dish is perfect when your taste buds say it is, and ingredients vary according to what’s available in the fridge.

And of course, it’s my job to translate and test recipes to make it easy for even the most novice of cooks to follow. All it takes is patience, patience to add the salt teaspoon by teaspoon, or water 1/4 cup at a time, tasting every step of the way; and a keen eye for observation–hmm … does the mixture look too dry or too mushy?

Et voila, here it is, the bakso goreng recipe after a makeover.

Bakso Goreng or Crispy Fried Meatballs

Bakso goreng is originally a Chinese dish and was modified by Hakka immigrants to Indonesia. Halal versions use chicken or beef instead of pork. Instead of shrimp, try substituting with fish paste. The same mixture can also be used to stuff peppers, eggplant, or tofu, which can then be either steamed or fried. This variant is called Yong Tau Foo in Singapore and Malaysia. Bakso goreng is delicious eaten with rice and a side dish of vegetables for a meal, or as party poppers (appetizers you can easily pop in your mouth 🙂).

Time: 45 minutes
Makes: about 35 meatballs

2 pounds minced pork
1 pound shrimp, peeled and minced
2 eggs
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup green onions cut into thin ‘O’s (about 2 stalks)
2 cups canola oil

In a large bowl, gently mix all ingredients together using your hands. The resulting mixture will be moist and lumps well into balls.

In a 14-inch wok or skillet, heat oil over high heat until it registers 350F on a thermometer. Fry a small piece of pork mixture and taste to make sure it’s salty enough.

Shape pork mixture into golf balls (about one-inch in diameter). Grab a handful of the mixture and squeeze it out of the hole at the top of your fist. Scoop each meatball with an oiled tablespoon and drop it carefully into the oil. Make 6 to 8 meatballs per batch; do not crowd the wok. Deep-fry meatballs until golden brown and crispy, about 4 to 5 minutes.


Lift meatballs from oil using a slotted spoon or wire mesh strainer, and drain on paper towels. Remove any debris from oil and continue frying meatballs in batches until done.

Serve with chili sauce and/or rice. 


14 thoughts on “Recording recipes … behind the scenes

  1. Fantastic beat ! I wish to apprentice even as you amend your site,
    how could i subscribe for a weblog website? The account helped me a applicable deal.
    I have been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright transparent concept

  2. first of all, thanks for sharing this recipe for all of us to enjoy. i’ve been getting bored of our native cooking, and have been expanding my knowledge of international recipes. however, i was hoping you could help me out with something. the bakso goreng’s that i’, familiar with are quite crispy, chewy and a whole lot “breadier”. they seem to contain a whole lot of flour (tapioca flour from the research i’ve been doing). the photo below should explain it better. any idea on how i could go around into creating such a light and fluffy bakso goreng? it also has little air pockets inside which i can’t seem to get my head around. do they add yeast?!

  3. wie kan mij helpen ik heb baso goreng pangsit gegeten met heldere soep met lente uitjes erin in Bandung

    het gaat om de heldere soep hoe geurig die is gemaakt en toch helder
    daar het recept van

  4. Mrs. L–I believe it’s very important to record these recipes so kudos to you for making the effort. It’s true once these women (and men) pass away, their recipes are gone forever.

    Tjan–enjoy this recipe! The egg helps bind the meatball together but I have a Chinese meatball recipe that only uses cornstarch.

  5. thanks for the recipe! was looking for this. i recall my mum making this when i was younger but have forgotten if eggs were added or not.

  6. My Filipino grandmother left me many recipes like that…”cut up some pork, mix it with the soy sauce”…? But how much pork? How much sauce?? It’s my goal to try to figure it all out with my mom and aunties so I don’t lose those dishes!

  7. Marvin, the stopwatch is definitely your friend but my biggest boo boo–I sometimes forget to switch it on and/or off!

    Diane, it’s been an arduous–but fun too!–process but I ask a lot of questions, consult old cookbooks, and trust my tastebuds.

    Tuty, thanks for that tip! Sounds kinda like my mum’s bakwan kepiting. Mmm …

  8. I am sure the bakso goreng can also be used in soup. My mom used to make bakso goreng, then saved some bakso goreng for bakso goreng kuah (soup) the next day… with thinly sliced carrots, snow peas, earwood mushrooms, and dried lily buds in clear chicken broth. Similar to War Won Ton Soup.

  9. I love the documentation of your process!

    I remember traveling in South India a few years ago taking notes on recipes. Mostly it was a “handful of this,” or “one coconut,” or “stir until it smells right.” When I got home I was mostly able to translate that into good dishes, but I have not yet tried to truly deal with making it quantifiable per the standard measurements. That would be daunting. I would think it would be the hardest part of producing a cookbook like this.

    BTW – those meatballs look amazing. I hope to try them this weekend.

  10. Awesome behind the scenes look at your process, Pat. I love your idea of using a stopwatch. Whenever I’m at my mother or grandmother’s trying to figure out one of their recipes, I just look at the time on the microwave–not very accurate. I’m gonna have to look into getting a stopwatch.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s