Nigella Lawson: Instagram can make a cook despair

Nigella Lawson: Instagram can make a cook despair

September 30, 2017 | More from Food Trends | Tags: , , ,

Nigella Lawson: Instagram can make a cook despair

Food doesnt have to be photogenic and the best recipes are thrown together. The TV cook on how the internet has changed the way we eat

I have always taken photographs of everything I eat. You could argue that holding up a meal with a cameraphone is marginally less embarrassing than in the days when you had to take your photos to the local chemist to be developed. I was always looked at a little oddly when they gave me back my holiday pictures: instead of a fat wallet of shots of my young children, it was all market stalls and plates of pasta.

So its perhaps surprising that, at first, I found it easy to resist Instagram. I like the world of Twitter, and didnt think I wanted to be swamped by images. But around three years ago I did sign up, and even learned to enjoy it. Im too obsessed with food not to want to immerse myself in it whenever and wherever possible. And, very often, Im inspired by what I see online.

Increasingly, though, I can feel overwhelmed. Instafood is a strange place: so many quadruple-tiered ombr-iced cakes (how on Earth do you even slice them, let alone eat them?); so much perfectly styled food there only because it looks pretty. Could smoothie bowls ever have been a Thing without Instagram? Are they even a Thing off it? I have never knowingly met anyone whos eaten one.

Of course, Instagram is a visual medium, no less than television, so its always going to favour photogenic food, but still, it can make a cook despair. When I post a picture of a stew, I feel I have to remind people who find the messy brownness unappealing that 1) stews are brown and 2) brown food tastes the best. It doesnt really matter to me whether people post pictures of stews on Instagram or Pinterest, but it does worry me if they stop cooking them. Not because it would be a bad thing, but because it would be a sad thing.

Instagram is not the only new influence on home cooking in recent years. And by home cooking, I mean, cooking done in the home. I know that, for many, the term conjures up a nostalgic world of steamed puds and shepherds pies traditional, old-fashioned fare, our version of cuisine grandmre. Now, I love this kind of cooking but, for me, home cooking isnt limited to any particular type of food. Cooking, no less than language, is a living thing: it evolves; we evolve. Those of us who cook cannot help but add unfamiliar ingredients, new to us, but part of long-established cooking traditions elsewhere. Our kitchens cannot be fixed in the past. And Im not talking about strenuous, overthought efforts to Make It New. The great modernist dictum is not a helpful precept in the kitchen, and the innovative can all too often be inedible. But when we cook, we have to Make It Now.

Anecdotal evidence eating at friends houses, or chatting with people about what theyre cooking that night shows an energetically varied and richly multicultural repertoire these days. A weeks cooking will take in pasta one night, a Thai curry another; yes, shepherds pie, but also tacos. Im not saying we always honour a cuisine as we cook from its canon, but then, we are not always trying to replicate a traditional recipe, but allowing ourselves to be inspired by it.

Nigella Lawson: Cooking is easy to do quickly, but finding time to shop can be the hard part. Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian

We have to adapt. I cook with what I can get, and if I cant get an authentic ingredient when Im making supper, Ill have to improvise. If I can get it, Ill find other uses for it, which may take it very far from its cultural and geographical origins. Does this matter? I worry that sometimes it can, and that one persons inspiration can be construed by another as culinary appropriation. On the other hand, Im excited that I can get fresh turmeric from my local supermarket, and that I live near a Middle Eastern shop that sells Aleppo pepper I want to use both in my everyday cooking, not necessarily when Im following a recipe, but finding a way to exult in the flavours, even as they mingle with ingredients they might traditionally not rub up against.

But this is what cooking has always been about. We put nutmeg on rice pudding, after all, without thinking it exotic. We take far-flung ingredients and make something from them that becomes our own. But its all been speeded up recently, and the food on our tables has changed radically. Where recipes, ingredients, ways of cooking always travelled with people, taking old, slow human time, now we find them instantly online. Its customary to find fault with the digital over-stimulated, unordered, unedited world, but I love that something that feels village-life traditional, the swapping of recipes from home to home, has been reinvigorated by the internet. Nothing could ever replace a cookery book written by a voice I trust or am freshly inspired by, but home cooks have found their space online, and this has expanded our domain offline. The kitchen is a connected, global space.

There are many different ways to cook, as many as there are cooks, and I dont believe in establishing a home cooking hierarchy. Yes, weve always been told that the proper way to cook is to go to the market, see what is available and stroll back, picturesque basket in hand, and let the ingredients speak for themselves. To me, that says idyllic Italian holiday, and Id love it if that were my everyday life. I find cooking is easy to do quickly, but finding time to shop can be the hard part. So I am that cliched middle-class creature with an Ocado habit. Similarly, I can see how ordering recipe boxes online makes life more manageable. (Friends with teenage children, who are otherwise begging and pleading for Deliveroo or Dominos, find this has made them want to cook for themselves.) And actually, this innovation seems to me to bring the cook most closely back, for all the relative novelty of the recipes, to the kitchen of my grandmothers day, when meals were strictly scheduled, and you could tell the day by what was on the table.

My cooking life is far more chaotic. I try to plan, but then feel stifled. Im at my most comfortable when I just open my fridge and have to wing it. When that works, I know I have not just supper but a recipe. The carrots and fennel with harissa is a case in point: I had the carrots, I had the fennel, and both needed using up fast, as did a lone satsuma I had in the fridge, though you could just as well use an orange. Harissa is something I always now keep on hand, because I know a dollop is one of the easiest ways of providing instant depth of flavour to anything Im cooking. And thats the thing: so often its thought that ingredients that arent everyday mean the cooking is complicated, when it can be quite the opposite. The ingredient does all the work. Eat this as a side dish, or turn it into supper in its entirety by topping every plate with a fried egg.

Which brings me to golden egg curry. This was the recipe that made me obsessed with fresh turmeric. I use a stick blender (you dont need a processor) to blitz it up with chillies, shallots, garlic and ginger: an instant, enlivening curry paste that can wean anyone off dependence on ready-made Thai curry pastes, excellent though they can be. Anyway, this is a Malaysian dish (taught to me by a Malaysian, so I can vouch for its authenticity) that bears no resemblance to the hideous, sultana-studded, hard-boiled egg curries of my childhood. You fry your almost fluoro-yellow aromatic mush, add coconut milk and tamarind, then crack in eggs and let them cook in the fierily fragrant sauce. Make the sauce in advance, and stash it in the fridge, or cook and freeze the paste, and you are moments away from supper at the end of a hectic day.

Theres not much cooking involved in the slow-roast five-spice lamb. You just put the ingredients, all six of them, in a tin, and leave it in the oven. I eat it as if it were Peking duck, with rice pancakes, which I certainly dont make myself. You are still cooking, even if everything isnt made from scratch. And you can also eat the spiced, sweet and tangy meat squished into rolls and consider it pulled lamb. Unapologetically brown, its wonderful with rice, too. If you want to prettify your food for your feed, you know what to do. Its what we all do: sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.

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