By: Jingshu Helen Yao
Back in 2020, I submitted a Chinese rice cake recipe to Cooking the Past, an online cookbook collected by a group of food historians. During the correspondence with my editor, I was asked to provide specific measurements for the amount of flour and glutinous rice that was used. I had no idea.
Rice Cake by Helen, Courtesy of the author. When I made the rice cake, I just raised the bag of flour over the mixing bowl and shook it. I watched the white powder pile up like snow covering a hill, a mountain in winter. I then poured water and watched it stream down the sides of the mountain of flour, like waves washing over a sandcastle. I stirred them up with chopsticks and when they refused to form a dough, I added more water, and then more flour, until the dough was neither too dry nor too wet.
That was an honest description of me making a dough but not something I could share directly. Not without stating how many cups of flour I used, even though I don’t have a measuring cup in my kitchen; not without saying how many grams of sugar I added, even though I think it depends, none at all or a whole lot of it – both measurements make sense. On one hand, I understand why precise amounts are needed. If someone wants to recreate the dish, four cups are much easier to follow than the “appropriate amount.” But that wasn’t how the food was made at home, not how the recipe was taught to me. Both my mother and grandmother often used 适量 (Shiliang) or “The Appropriate Amount” to describe the amount needed for each ingredient. Even if they were asked to quantify it, they would say “as much as you think is needed” or “give it a try and you will know.” To me, recipes were never written; they were told over a steaming pot, over the sizzling sound of oil, over the aromatic smell of species. That was how I learned to cook, not through words and numbers, but through watching, listening, and smelling. Eventually, I made a guess for my recipe submission and wrote two cups of flour and half a cup of glutinous rice. But I have no idea if someone followed these instructions strictly, whether or not they could make the rice cake that I’m familiar with. Subconsciously, I felt a little ashamed for not being able to provide a more accurate answer, for not having a drawer of kitchen supplies that have numbers and measuring units encrypted. But I didn’t give the feeling much thought and forgot about it soon after.
Amazon Best Sellers Kitchen Measuring Tools, Screenshots from Amazon.ca. When I watched Mama Put’s story in Ozoz Sokoh’s documentary, Rice and Beans, I heard the following narration: “She has neither pastry cutter or cupcake plunger but she knows how deep to stick her knife…she will not win any awards for sophistication, her own people won’t let her... and because she does it anyway, without language. Do we not call her unskilled labour?” The memory of writing that rice cake recipe came back to me. Like many videos of street food vendors that went viral online, people may look in awe at the skills, eyes wide open. But these videos would not be categorized the same as the ones that feature a clean kitchen, shiny tools, young and attractive chiefs, and measurements. Not yet. I was really excited to connect with Ozoz Sokoh through MSL4000: Exhibition Project, where she was a guest speaker at one of our lectures. I brought up how the documentary had moved me and inspired me to think deeper about my own culinary traditions. I shared my dilemma with her about measurements in recipe writing. Ozoz replied, “I think people have to understand the difference between conceptual recipes… by sight, taste, and deep understanding; versus precision cooking by following a recipe and measuring… they co-exist and one is not necessarily better than the other.” She then introduced me to the Persian word “Andaaza/ loose estimation”, discussed by Shayma Saadat (one of Ozoz’s friends and a food writer and blogger) in an article about her mother’s Ginger Chicken. It sounded a lot like how my mother would use 适量, which made me wonder how many cultures had, or used similar terms this way – to represent knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation without defining, specifying, or measuring. In my first draft of this article, I titled it “The Opposite of Sophistication.” But what Ozoz said reminded me of is that cooking without precise measurement is not necessarily unsophisticated, but simply a different kind of sophistication related to a different culture, a different way of teaching. Therefore I renamed it with a term that I am familiar with and have been for a long time but had not yet fully explored: 适量 The Appropriate Amount.