In the 1980s, the Egyptian food writer Claudia Roden visited Australia, touring various wineries. She noticed that many served bread and oil, plus a little bowl of an artisanal spice mix for dipping, which they called “dukkah”. “It made people thirsty so they drank more,” Roden remembers. As she dipped her bread first into oil and then into the heady mixture of crushed roasted hazelnuts, coriander seeds, cumin, sesame and salt, Roden realised that what her Australian hosts were offering her was essentially her mother’s own spice mix from Cairo in the 1940s. This taste of her childhood had travelled so far that, like Chinese whispers, it found its way back to her.
“Dukkah” is proof, if proof were needed, of the power of recipes to change the way we eat. This toasty Middle Eastern concoction is now a thing in big cities the world over – and with good reason, since it improves almost anything savoury you care to sprinkle it over. Some add dukkah to hummus, others to hard-boiled eggs. Chefs and food writers have adapted it in countless ways. Some use pumpkin seeds instead of the hazelnuts, and fennel seed in place of coriander. But what most dukkah-eaters don’t realise is we probably wouldn’t be eating it at all – outside of Egypt – had Roden not first thought to record the formula on paper in A Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1968. She took the name “dukkah” from a travel book of 1860. In every Egyptian home, blends of spices and sesame seeds called “do’a” are eaten with bread for breakfast or as a snack, but as Roden writes, “It is a very personal and individual mixture which varies from one family to another.” Before Roden, no one had ever included a recipe for dukkah in a book. Her mother’s particular version therefore became the template for all dukkahs. Roden, who is 80, sent me a Youtube video a friend of hers in LA had passed on showing someone making dukkah with baked chickpeas and peanuts (cheaper than hazelnuts). She finds it “strange and exciting”, she tells me, to see how her family recipe was adopted so enthusiastically until it became “a many splendoured thing that is not Egyptian at all”.
Recipes are amazing things, somewhere between magic potions and passports to a different way of living. They take dishes that belong to one cook and teleport them to another. It used to be that dishes moved at the same pace as human beings themselves – very slowly, as populations migrated from one place to another. When printed cookbooks became common, recipes were able to travel more widely. But it’s only now that recipe sharing has gone fully global. In March this year, I attended the Diálogos de Cocina food symposium in San Sebastián, the Basque city with one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. The theme of the conference – attended by chefs, writers and entrepreneurs – was that today “food is an open source”, rather than something whose mysteries should be jealously hoarded. Chefs are no longer judged by their “secret recipes” but by how often their top dishes are shared, photographed and copied. Fuchsia Dunlop, the great expert on Chinese food (and author of the award-winning Land of Fish and Rice), tells me the biggest difference with writing recipes in the digital age is readers can “hold writers to account”. In 2001, when she published her first book on Sichuan cookery, her western readers took it on faith that her recipes were really authentic. Now, they can check her dishes against the vast chaotic encyclopedia of online food photos and travel blogs and judge whether her ma po tofu is the real deal.
Our access to the most delicious recipes in the world has been blown wide open. Itamar Srulovich, who co-runs Honey & Co restaurant in London’s Warren Street with his wife Sarit Packer, argues there has been a huge freedom in realising that “no one owns a recipe”. When Srulovich sees on Instagram that someone else has decided to make Honey & Co’s pomegranate chicken or their glorious and justly famous cheesecake, with blueberries and shredded kadaif pastry, he does not mind at all, because he sees recipes as part of a vast, ongoing conversation about food, as if you are visiting someone else’s kitchen. The difference now is this cosy process of exchange happens on a scale and at a speed that is dizzying.
To return to dukkah, what’s surprising about its rise is not that a recipe should have travelled from one continent to another but that it took so long to get there. Roden’s dukkah needed the best part of 20 years to become an object of desire in Australia, through old-fashioned word of mouth. By contrast, recipes today can achieve global recognition almost overnight. Nidal Barake, who runs a food innovation company in San Francisco called Gluttonomy, has noticed the speed at which recipes travel is exponentially faster than even five years ago. Barake observes certain recipes – whether it’s pulled pork or za’atar chicken – “snowballing” from chefs to restaurants to “casual coffee shops” to “your own kitchen counter”. In February this year, chef Eric Ripert (380k Twitter followers) posted a video of himself baking tuiles – delicate French almond biscuits which have been around for centuries. By the next day, notes Barake, social media went crazy for tuiles, with chefs from many countries posting their own personalised tuiles recipes.
There is nothing new about cooks recording their recipes for someone else to reproduce. About 3,600 years ago, an anonymous scribe in Mesopotamia scratched 40 recipes into cuneiform tablets including one for some kind of poultry pie made from assorted game birds. “When the birds and broth are cooked, you chop and mash leek [and] garlic … together and add them to the mixture” instructed this ancient cook. It sounds not altogether unlike a Delia chicken and leek pie, except now a billion people could Google it and instantly be told the calorie count, how many minutes it would take to mash the leeks and whether the filling can be made in a microwave.
For many people, recipes have become not a means to better cooking but a way of filling our heads with fantasy food, even as we order in Deliveroo. It’s one of the strange ironies of modern eating that recipes have never been so powerful or so pervasive, even as large segments of the population never pick up a wooden spoon. Earlier this year, Google launched an “advanced recipe search” for its mobile apps, confirming what many of us have long suspected, which is that the internet is really just a giant recipe swap. A person who searches for “chicken wings” on the Google mobile app is now given options such as “crispy”, “honey mustard” and “slow cooker”. The ideal internet recipe takes five minutes, uses only two “insanely simple” ingredients and gives you both comfort and a flat stomach.
Even those who never cook have been influenced by the rapid changes in modern recipes. One bright spring day, I sit in an office on London’s Holborn having lunch with Susi Richards, the head of product development at Sainsbury’s. Her job is to oversee the 35 product developers who come up with the recipes for the 1,500 new food items that launch in the supermarket each year. It takes on average a year for a dish to go from an initial concept to a finished product, so the recipe developers have to act fast to keep up with recipe trends. On a table in front of us are an outrageously yellow turmeric and split pea hummus (“Turmeric is a trend that came out of nowhere,” says Richards) and another coloured purple with beetroot (“People love beetroot because of Nutribullets,” she says). There is also a dish of lobster macaroni cheese (“We noticed a lot of chefs were doing twists on macaroni cheese”), some prawn gyozas (“Asian accompaniments are very big”), a tub of beef “bone broth” (“The influence of the Hemsleys!”), quinoa bolognese (which I’m afraid tasted as unspeakable as it sounds) and butternut “squaffles”, pieces of squash cut into the shape of a waffle, designed to appeal to people on a low-carb diet. These dishes will live and die under the influence of the recipes we devour so voraciously on social media. The hummus is one of the better things I taste – fresh and lemony – but Richards suspects “turmeric might be faddy” with limited staying power. Then again, she thought the same about spiralised courgette.
During the 12 years she has been at Sainsbury’s, Richards has noticed big changes in the foods people choose. “Customers are acting much more erratically than they were before.” On the one hand, large numbers want vegan health foods laced with coconut oil and avocado. On the other, there has been a rise in “dude food” – swaggeringly macho junk such as nacho pizza. Overall, expectations of a dish have become much more demanding. The person who buys a ready-made lasagne may never have cooked lasagne at home, but maybe they have seen Giorgio Locatelli cook one on TV and this “changes the benchmark” for what they expect from a recipe. It’s common knowledge now that the ragu should be started with a sofrito of onions, celery and carrots, and slow-simmered with wine. I ask Richards where her recipe developers get most of their ideas from, expecting her to speak of big data or focus groups, but she replies, “We take our biggest inspiration from people like Yotam and Nigella.”
In a digital world saturated with recipes, one of the mysteries is why certain dishes made by certain cooks get such a vast following while others – even if delicious – don’t gain traction. Someone who has given a lot of thought to this question is Kristen Miglore, creative director of the Food52 website in New York, where she writes the “genius recipes” column. It’s Miglore’s thesis that certain standout recipes allow us to skip past “all the canonical versions” with unexpected hacks or surprising ingredients that lead us to a smarter way of cooking. Californian chef Daniel Patterson overturned centuries of wisdom about egg cookery when he discovered you could make “poached scrambled eggs” by whirling eggs in simmering water. As Miglore writes, an added bonus of these fluffy eggs is “there’s no crusty pan to clean”. Like many “genius recipes”, this one is what Miglore calls a “head-scratcher”, whose technique goes against everything we once knew. A favourite recipe among bloggers right now is Marcella Hazan’s tomato pasta sauce made by simmering a halved onion with a lot of butter and tomatoes until “the fat floats free from the tomatoes”. You look at this recipe, Miglore tells me, and think: “Wait, this tomato sauce is only three ingredients? And you don’t even have to chop the onion?” Another “genius recipe” in Miglore’s book is Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread, which she describes as the “first viral recipe” – after it appeared in the New York Times in the distant past of 2006, food blogs went crazy for the counter-intuitive idea that better bread could be achieved without kneading. Certain cult recipes have always been shared, Miglore notes, but the difference is, once, they were laboriously passed around as newspaper clippings whereas now they can be “on a million Pinterest boards and in a million inboxes in a day”.
Just because a recipe is shared does not mean it is any good. While the internet has allowed “genius” recipes to rise to the surface, it has also enabled the spewing out of useless ones that no cookbook editor would have allowed. Cookery writer Charlotte Pike has set up a social enterprise called Field & Fork aimed at improving lives by getting more people cooking, particularly young parents and those on low incomes. But she has found “too many mediocre recipes out there, either poorly written, or ones which produce underwhelming results. I think this colours people’s experiences – if you follow a recipe carefully and end up with a disappointing result, then it’s bound to be offputting.” Pike sees a lot of people on her courses who are “deeply scared” of cooking. They are overwhelmed and maddened by the assumptions recipes make about how much equipment they might have in the house. When Pike does classes on vegetable soup, she consciously chooses versions that are chunky rather than smooth, because she can’t assume that everyone owns a blender.
“We can never assume the customer has equipment,” says Patrick Drake, the head of the cookery kit subscription scheme Hello Fresh, when I meet him at his offices in Shoreditch, east London. Drake is wearing a beanie hat and nibbling on a packet of Marks & Spencer mixed nuts, and looks every inch the former-lawyer-turned-entrepreneur that he is. If you can afford £64 for four meals for four people (or £36 for three vegetarian meals for two) the company will deliver recipe cards plus all the ingredients you need to cook them, down to a single clove of garlic, a few grams of grated parmesan or a pre-measured teaspoon of ras-al-hanout. The recipes work on the understanding that most kitchens, even in affluent households, may not include much more than a few pots, a knife and a wooden spoon. If something requires rolling, the recipe card will suggest using a wine bottle covered in clingfilm instead of a rolling pin. As a staunch rolling-pin owner who positively relishes slow cooking (at least some of the time), I am not the target audience for Hello Fresh, but when my family gave it a whirl for three weeks, my 17-year-old enjoyed it more than any cooking I’ve cajoled him into over the years. As a boy who grew up swapping Pokémon, he trusted the reassuring words on the shiny cards far more than a nagging parent’s voice. His normal repertoire of fried eggs and pasta carbonara suddenly expanded to Moroccan meatballs, prawn rigatoni, and hoisin and vegetable stir-fries.
When Drake launched the UK version of Hello Fresh five years ago – it is also in eight other countries including the United States and the Netherlands – he realised there were a lot of young professionals like him who wanted to make cooking part of their lives but saw recipes as things fraught with obstacles. “I tried to make a Vietnamese pho once,” Drake tells me as we stand looking at the 4,000 secondhand cookbooks in the Hello Fresh library. “It cost me almost £45 for ingredients that will never get used again.” He sees Hello Fresh as a “revolution in cooking” that can take away the “cerebral burden” of shopping and planning that puts so many people off cooking. When I say some Hello Fresh dishes are not simmered long enough for my liking, he explains that market research tells him his customers have a “sweet spot” of about 27 minutes when it comes to the amount of time they want to spend cooking a meal. “If people see on the recipe that it takes 45 minutes, they say, ‘I don’t have 45 minutes.’”
There are, however, those who find it sad that cooking should be reduced to numbers in this way. The prolific cookery writer Diana Henry (author, most recently, of Simple) laments the fact so many digital recipes “lack personality”, because they are food without context. “I am not interested in recipes that don’t come from somewhere,” Henry remarks. For her, no internet food search can equal the goosebumps of leafing through an old cookbook and finding someone else’s long forgotten shopping list inside it, the remnants of an earlier life.
She sees a good recipe as being like “the capturing of perfume”, of a particular time and place, whether it’s something from her travels, from her mum’s old recipe collection or a friend’s Tunisian lemon and almond cake she once scribbled down on a piece of paper. There are certain favourites Henry returns to time and again: roast chicken with anchovies, garlic and rosemary, a flourless chocolate cake, and spinach and bulgar wheat pilaf with harissa roast tomatoes and labneh, which is the single dish readers have given her the most feedback on. Henry sees it as one of the great bonuses of being a cookbook author that she gets the chance to gather all these precious memories in one place and “someone else pays to publish them”.
Not every cook, needless to say, has this luxury. There are millions of cooks who, even in the age of Google, neither generate nor use recipes. One of the most original and wonderful cookbooks I have read in recent years is The Indecisive Chicken: Stories and Recipes from Eight Dharavi Women by Prajna Desai. Over three and a half months, Desai ran a cooking workshop in Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai, and then documented the cooking and lives of eight of the women she worked with. She found that, without recipes to aid them, these women cooked with “an amazing intersection of rote thinking and confidence”. These were cooks willing to take risks who did not mind if a dish took longer than 27 minutes from start to finish. They hand-rolled rotis from pearl millet, and bathed white fish in a sauce of tamarind and fresh coriander. There was subtlety and quick-wittedness in their food, such as green bitter gourds stuffed with a sweet peanutty filling, tied with string and shallow-fried. Some of the dishes Desai found in Dharavi were unfamiliar from any cookbook. All over India, cooks will roast an aubergine over a flame and chop the silky flesh with spice, but Desai had never before seen a cook take a pottery shard, heat it, and stir it through the aubergine to give it an extra-smoky taste. These are the sorts of “little inventions”, says Desai, that recipe-cooks such as us may lose the knack of doing. On the other hand, the lives of these Dharavi cooks – dominated as they are by household labour for which they get scant praise – are a reminder of how different life is without recipes. As Desai comments, without any written record, “the food is hidden away inside homes, inside heads”.
Recipes are such a ubiquitous technology, we sometimes take for granted just how much we have benefited from their diffusion. Even 50 years ago, most humans on the planet lived like the Dharavi cooks in Mumbai, stuck in our own household units cooking our own particular cuisines. Now, for those with the resources and the desire, just about any dish is reproducible in any kitchen across the world, if we can only follow the steps (which is a big “if”).
Some predict the future of cooking will be recipes made by more reliable robot chefs, such as the Moley, created by computer scientist Mark Oleynik, who does not make all those human mistakes like burning the pine nuts or muddling up bicarb and baking powder. Moley, who has robotic arms like Doctor Octopus, can make 100 dishes including a notoriously fiddly crab bisque. This technology is far beyond the reach of an average household, but already there are devices in our kitchens, from bread makers to Thermomixes, that essentially reduce the human element in a recipe to mere measuring. My own hunch, however, is that as long as humans are the ones eating the food, the future of recipes will include fallible human cooks poring over instructions on a page. The single ingredient that makes us want to cook a recipe is the person who created it. We don’t just want to make any recipe. We want Nigel fishcakes; Ottolenghi salads; Madhur Jaffrey curry; Jamie Oliver everything (it’s striking how often Google thinks that “Jamie” is the answer to any food search).
In the end, what makes a recipe live are the humans who keep it current by cooking from it, adjusting it, and writing angry notes on the page. Nigella Lawson believes that recipes are there to be “fiddled with”. When I spoke to her at a dinner at the Oxford literary festival in honour of the food writer Anna del Conte, Lawson said she sees recipes as “an autobiographical form”. When she returns to her own recipes, it can be like an encounter with her younger self. Lawson remarks that she is “teased” by her family because sometimes she cooks one of her past recipes and complains out loud about “her”, the voice of authority in her own recipes which she no longer fully agrees with. Cooking from one of her own recipes, Lawson may call out, “But what does she mean? I know she says use lime but I want lemon!”
Bee Wilson is the author of First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (Fourth Estate, £8.99). To buy a copy for £7.64, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010