How to cook without using recipes

Freestyling is the one of the best ways to become a great cook, says writer and teacher, Javaria Akbar. Here’s how 

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By Javaria Akbar on

My Pakistani mum’s signature dish is called Deewaani bhaaji, which roughly translates to Crazy Vegetable Stir Fry – it’s crazy because it changes every time, depending on what’s in the fridge.

My mum taught me about South Asian cooking without measuring a single thing or leafing through a recipe book for quantities, and now I cook in the same way, favouring dashes and dollops over measured teaspoons and millilitres.

I see recipes as suggestions rather than blueprints and that’s what I hope to teach my first batch of cookery students this year.

Although recipe books offer inspiration, they’ll straightjacket your creativity if you fervently adhere to them and shop for only listed ingredients. If you give another person’s cookery know-how more credence than your own instincts, you’ll never get the knack for cooking off the cuff.

Cooking is a relaxed hustle; you’ll become an expert only by doing it and trusting your own taste buds. You’ll always be able to make a meal without a recipe for support

Cooking is a relaxed hustle; you’ll become an expert only by doing it and trusting your own taste buds. Building a flavour mind map, or a scaffolding of taste, for your own palate means you’ll always be able to make a meal without a recipe for support. There’s a great feeling of comfort in knowing that you can do that; cookery provides sustenance for the stomach and confidence for the soul.

Plus, when your children absorb this skill from you – an ability they’ve unknowingly inherited – it becomes a practical heirloom that connects them to their history, roots and family memories, which is especially precious for a first-generation immigrant like me.

Chill out and stock up

Food doesn’t have to be fancy and time consuming to taste good – I’d rather go on a road trip with a gassy granddad than roast my own spices and schlepp out a mortar and pestle to grind them in because it takes too long and doesn’t make much difference anyway. Instead, fill a spice box with turmeric, crushed chilli, ground coriander, cumin, mustard seeds and cinnamon. Load up your stock cupboard with tinned kidney beans, chickpeas, plum tomatoes, dried lentils, rice and stock cubes so you always have a base to cook from even when you haven’t been to the shops. Then all you ever need are some vegetables, eggs or chicken to turn it into a feast.

Bone up on your technique

Here’s a secret: making a good curry is more about how you cook it than what you put in it. For example, you must always cook out raw spices and garlic or your final dish will taste harsh and bitter.

There are two ways to do this:

1. Fry the spices with browned onions, garlic, ginger and tomatoes on high for five minutes until all the liquid has evaporated and everything has melded into a smooth-ish texture. Then pop this basic curry sauce in the fridge for later or add in your veggies or meat with a splash of water and leave to simmer until cooked.

2. Throw everything in the pan, including the meat, and cook until tender before whacking the hob up to high and stirring your curry continuously until the oil separates from the rest of the masala.

This process, which I’ve anglicised a bit, is called ‘bhuning’ and if you don’t do it your dish will fall short, like an almost-there orgasm. You’ll have all the right ingredients but none of the spark to make it sing. You’ll be left dispirited and unable to sleep.

Master your timing

Add whole spices, like cumin seeds, cinnamon sticks, fenugreek and kalonji to hot oil at the very start, throw ground spices in at the middle and stir in fresh herbs at the end with the heat off.

Temper it

Tempering, or doing a tarka, is when you add whole spices, like cumin, to slices of garlic or onion frying away in hot oil. Once browned, you pour the entire thing over a bubbling pan of lentils, beans or vegetables to zsush up a flat-tasting dish or rescue leftovers at the back of the fridge, like chicken masala and red split lentils to chickpeas and even tins of baked beans. Plus, the hissing sound of the bubbling oil impresses people.

Taste it

Perfect for picking noses and touch typing, fingers also make the perfect accoutrements for taste testing. Stick your (clean) finger in whatever you’re cooking and make adjustments.

Rescue that renegade dopiaza

Too much salt? Bung in a chopped potato and some hot water to dilute it. Too spicy? Add a dash of whole milk or swirl in some yoghurt to tame it. Too tomatoey? Sprinkle over brown sugar, squeeze on honey or dollop in a spoon of ketchup to sweeten it. Any crap curry I have ever cooked has been rescued with cream or butter. Like Newton’s law of motion, this is an indubitable principle that no clean eating guru can set asunder. Obey it. Once you’ve rectified your mistakes a few times you won’t even see them as errors anymore; just opportunities to taste and tailor.

And finally, remember there’s no test at the end. Madhur Jaffrey hasn’t been invited to dinner and no one will die if your bhuna lamb tastes like feet. Don’t be a slave to the stove. Be a rebel with your rations.




Serves 4 | Preparation time: 30 minutes | Cooking time: 45 minutes


  • 3 onions, finely chopped
  • 2 small green chillies
  • 4cm piece ginger, peeled and finely grated
  • 8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1kg leg of lamb, chopped into 2.5cm cubes
  • 2 tablespoons Greek-style yoghurt, whisked with 200ml water
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped coriander


  • 1 tablespoon garam masala
  • 1½ teaspoons ground cumin, plus a large pinch for sprinkling
  • 1½ teaspoons ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon chilli powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground turmeric


  • 3 tablespoons oil
  • ½ x 250g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • In a blender or using a mortar and pestle, grind the onions, green chillies, ginger, garlic, oil and tinned tomatoes into a smooth paste.
  1. Mix the paste together with the garam masala, cumin, ground coriander, chilli powder, turmeric and salt. Place the lamb in a large bowl and cover in the paste, making sure all the pieces of lamb are well coated.
  2. Put the lamb into a heavy-based saucepan over a low heat, cover and cook for 35–40 minutes, stirring frequently until the meat is tender and the oil has separated.
  3. Add the yoghurt, then cover and cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring constantly over a low–medium heat.
  4. Remove from the heat then sprinkle with the chopped coriander and a large pinch of ground cumin and serve.

Recipe taken from Indian Made Easy by Amandip Uppal, out now.

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food honestly
Indian food

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