Quality not quantities: Adam Liaw’s tips for recording your family recipes

Grandparents often cook by feel, making it hard to record ingredient quantities accurately.
Grandparents often cook by feel, making it hard to record ingredient quantities accurately. Photo: iStock

A few years ago my mum gave me her old recipe book. It was a giant 400-odd page desk planner from 1975, but instead of appointments she'd filled it with recipes she'd collected over the years.

Each date had recipes scrawled into it. Most were in her handwriting, others came from other people in my family. Quite a few were written in Chinese or Malay. Some were clipped from Women's Weekly and other magazines from the '70s and '80s and pasted in like a scrapbook. I recognised my grandmother's handwriting on many of the pages.

It wasn't just a time capsule from that era; it was from my childhood. Many of the dishes I grew up with were there.

There was even a recipe for the first thing I ever cooked – the Indian sweet, gulab jamun. I was in the kitchen with my mum at the age of about 7 or 8 and I still remember it vividly. I'm not entirely sure why but looking at that recipe makes me feel quite emotional.

It makes me remember how I felt as a child, dizzy with pride and absolutely amazed that I'd actually made something myself that I thought absolutely delicious.

These days I make gulab jamun with barely a thought and hardly a glance at a recipe. It's a simple enough process that only needs a handful of ingredients, but at the time I remember thinking I'd just climbed Mount Everest on one leg.

Modern recipes make us obsess over measurements and precision, but our family recipes are built on our senses and history.

Adam Liaw's stroganoff stew.

Adam Liaw's mum's stroganoff stew is a family favourite (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem

I'm glad my mother collected these recipes for me. I've heard so many stories from people about how difficult it is to pull these kind of things together. The main problem I hear is that their parents or grandparents cook by feel; throwing in a bit of this and a bit of that and caring little for the measurements and precision of modern cooking.

I even heard of one family who, when trying to write down their generations-old satay recipe, asked the one ancient uncle who knew how to make it to take handfuls of various ingredients and throw them into a bowl placed on a set of scales, so they could calculate a quantitative measurement for the old man's handfuls.

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Another family I know is cleverly using their phones to film their grandmother making some of their family favourites, then poring over the footage like intelligence agents trying to decode a secret formula.

These are fun family projects, but when it comes to recipes I think they might be missing the point.

Many of the recipes in my mother's book have no measurements at all. Just a rough list of ingredients and a few lines of method. The most useful recipe has been for a particular chilli sauce I had never been able to get right.

My mum's recipe is a list of five ingredients with no measurements listed and no process explained, but after following it I was able to make the sauce perfectly for the first time in my life.

Modern recipes make us obsess over measurements and precision, often to the exclusion of our own senses and history. But our family recipes are built on our senses and history.

I was finally able to get my mum's chilli sauce right because I'd watched my mother and grandmother make it literally my whole life, and eaten it thousands of times. Instead of trying to follow a recipe that would always fail because of the inherent differences in the strength of ginger, chillies etc. I simply focused on making it taste the way I already knew it should taste.

I'm not saying you need to give up on measurements entirely, but we should understand that when it comes to family recipes, their greatest strength is that they're ours.

We already know all the things a written recipe will never be able to accurately convey to someone who is trying to cook a dish they have never had before – the size your grandma cuts things, the shape of the pot she always uses, or the smell in the kitchen when she cooks that tells you when the onions are just right.

Family recipes are important not just because they taste good. They're important because they're cooked together and eaten together, and that's the key to getting them right.

If you want to record your family recipes, don't concentrate on being a recipe writer, concentrate on being a family.