FOOD HONESTLY

Does a big kitchen make you a better cook?

Black pepper beef stir fry, taken from Ching’s Fast Food: 110 Quick and Healthy Chinese Favourites by Ching-He Haung 

No, concludes Javaria Akbar. You can have a kitchen island and cupboards-full of Lakeland gadgets, but in the end, it’s about cooking simply and well

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By Javaria Akbar on

I’m not alone in daydreaming about having a kitchen as big as a ballroom, am I? A family space that’s large enough for exotic ingredients, a bread maker and a giant pan for preparing preserves?

Last year, after moving for the fourth time in seven years to a place with a bigger kitchen, I realised that this consumerist dream and the idea that a smidgen more space will make me a better cook was, much like Theresa May’s unwavering faith in the advent of a Tory mandate, a sack of shitty illusion.

Little has changed between my move from a flat with kitchenette to a house with a slightly roomier scullery because I’ve taken the ruthless mantra of compact cooking along with me, which is to cull the superfluous, to save the necessary.

Looking back, I’ve realised that all I’ve ever needed to make a great meal apart from a hob is a pan, knife and spoon. I’ve come to the conclusion that all the other stuff – the silicone garlic peelers, onion goggles and fat trappers – although fun and pretty, turn cooking into a faff. So I’ve suspended my lascivious bedtime hobby of ogling online kitchen accessories for now.

To prove my point, here's a timeline of the kitchens I’ve cooked in over the years:

1. Cubbyhole kitchenette

The first and only time I’ve ever shared a home with a boy (apart from my brothers) was when I moved in with my husband after our arranged marriage. This flat only had three cupboards, an under-counter fridge and an ice box, so being organised was vital. Plus, there was added pressure to perform – imagine trying to look attractive while cooking a feast in front of a new crush, except he’s fast-forwarded to being your spouse and you’ve missed all the getting-to-know-you bits in between. Your heart’s beating like a hammer, the kebabs are burning and your hairspray has deflated your coiffed barnet into an arrangement of evenly spaced strands across your forehead, like you’re wearing a tarantula hat.

Scarcity of space and equipment meant ingredients had to be used quickly in this flat, making my cooking simpler, faster and fresher. My frying pan and wok – used to make everything from fried rice, soup, custard and curries – hung on the wall. I put spices in a tiny box to make room for dry goods and cut my grocery list because my fridge was the size of a post it note. Stir fries were my ultimate go-to recipes because I only needed a wok and a sharp knife to make something delicious.

Your heart’s beating like a hammer, the kebabs are burning and your hairspray has deflated your coiffed barnet into an arrangement of evenly spaced strands across your forehead, like you’re wearing a tarantula hat

My husband cooked when I needed culinary respite, and because we were in the beginnings of our relationship (despite being fully committed on paper), he ate everything I ever made even when it was over-salted or undercooked to spare my feelings. I decided he was a keeper when I burnt a cake and returned to find that he’d jammed a wooden spoon in the door of the malfunctioning oven to keep it ajar and “regulate the temperature” for my next attempt.

2. Temporary rental + newborn baby

I lived in this rental for six months despite telling the landlord I’d stay for at least a year to get the rent reduced. The kitchen was long and dark, like a Japanese horror movie and there was a WC at one end that always smelt like Nice ‘n’ Spicy Nik-Naks regardless of how many times I cleaned it.

Despite living on buttered toast and Ribena, I like to describe this period of my life as a success because I didn’t get scurvy and kept a sentient being alive. Aside from cooking up breastmilk, for which I required neither fire nor spoon, I used the microwave for twilight feasts of le jacket potato because I didn’t have the time to open the moving boxes even though I was on maternity leave (babies, as it turns out, are despots that scoff at break entitlements). I also cut the tip of my finger off with a Mandoline and had to change nappies with a bandaged mitt, like a shorter Lennox Lewis with a ravaged pelvic floor. What’s the upshot? Don’t use sharp gadgets to make your vegetables fancier until your child is potty trained.

3. Digs with actual stairs, followed by 1960s house

I moved to a new, predominantly white, city and a home with an inexplicable kitchen that featured slimline cabinets that were too narrow for dinner plates. I missed the ethnic grocery stores where I used to shop but it didn’t matter anyway because my freelance work took off and I’d find myself eating chocolate crispies out of a mug to meet deadlines. Then I’d panic about healthy eating and swallow an avocado.

My next move, into a house with sixties décor, had room for more stuff but I ended up cooking in the same couple of reliable pans. Even with the olden cabinets and torn lino flooring, I loved the place because it got me on the property ladder (hell I would’ve loved it even if it didn’t have a working bog or walls).

The only real changes that affected my cooking were having a dishwasher and a proper windowsill to grow herbs, which duly died because I can’t be trusted to regularly water anything. My daughter was old enough to get involved with mixing chocolate crispies by this point so I baked more and took photos of her culinary adventures, saving images of this unfashionable kitchen for digital posterity.

6. And finally, a Cushi kitchen

My current abode has fancy drawers that are extra-deep and a cabinet that has a door on it that lifts like a garage fascia. I’ve filled up the space with a beautiful electric crepe maker from Lidl and let me tell you, never in my life have I ever wanted to knock up a quick crepe aside from the day I bought it. Because what is a crepe, but an eggy, circular rag reluctantly eaten on Shrove Tuesday? My spiraliser is redundant too (mainly because courgetti doesn’t taste like spaghetti) and my reconditioned eBay mixer sounds like a concrete digger, which turns the relaxing affair of baking into an artillery operation where my husband bellows “MAKE IT STOP!” from the lounge.

Over the years I have trifled with fads and gone up in the world in terms of kitchens, but I’ve always come back to the same recipes, pots and pans – because cooking well is not about style or space, but about practice and practicality. Yes, truffle shavers and mango splitters make for interesting culinary experiments and are an affordable expense for people like Nigella Lawson (who has an annual fresh flower budget that overshadows my freelance income) but my home is not a science lab or a restaurant. I’d rather spend on fresh ingredients.

@javaria_akbar

Black pepper beef and rainbow vegetable stir-fry 

Prep time: 10 minutes, plus 20 minutes for marinating * Cook in: 5 minutes * Serves: 2–4

  •  250g (9oz) beef sirloin, fat removed and meat cut into 5mm (¼in) slices
  • 1 tbsp of cornlour
  • 2 tbsps of groundnut oil
  • 2.5cm (1in) piece of root ginger, peeled and grated
  • 300g (11oz) mix of sliced mangetout, broccoli, sugar snap peas, baby pak choy, red cabbage, ribbons of carrot and baby spring onions
  • Dash of light soy sauce or to taste

For the marinade

  • 1 tbsp of dark soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp of light soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp of Shaohsing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 2 pinches of ground black pepper
  1. Mix together the ingredients for the marinade in a large bowl, then add the beef and stir to coat. Cover the bowl with cling ilm and set aside for 20 minutes to marinate, then remove from the marinade (retaining this) and dust with the cornflour.
  2. Heat a wok over a high heat, and when it starts to smoke, add half the groundnut oil. Add the ginger and stir-fry for a second or so, then add the vegetable mix and toss together in the wok. Add a drop of water to create a little steam for cooking the vegetables. Cook for 1 minute and transfer to a plate.
  3. Place the wok back over the heat and add the remaining groundnut oil, followed by the beef. Let the meat settle for a few seconds, then stir in the wok for 1–2 minutes. Tip in the stir-fried vegetables and toss together with the beef. Season further, to taste, with light soy sauce, then transfer to a serving plate and eat immediately.


    Recipe taken from Ching’s Fast Food: 110 Quick and Healthy Chinese Favourites by Ching-He Haung. 

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Black pepper beef stir fry, taken from Ching’s Fast Food: 110 Quick and Healthy Chinese Favourites by Ching-He Haung 
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