Culinary Wabi-Sabi: Embracing Imperfection in the Kitchen

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A few years ago, while on a weekend trip to Paris, I walked through the flea market at the Place d’Aligre in the 12th arrondissement.  As I meandered through crates of old records, cracked teacups with saucers, and vintage clothing, I was reminded of the adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  I turned a corner and came upon a box of mismatched silverware sitting on the side of one of the tables.  Though it was nothing more than a box of mismatched silverware, I was mesmerized by the light reflecting off the pieces of metal. I took a closer look saw that some of the pieces were spotted and bent, some rusted, others scratched – they were filled with imperfections.  And yet, there, in that chaotic mingling of utensils, I found something better than perfection – I found beauty.

Perhaps it is the start of a new year filled with the energy of new intentions, or recent conversations with friends about their experiences with cooking, but I've been thinking a lot about the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi – specifically, Wabi-Sabi in the kitchen Pared down to its essence, Wabi-Sabi is the art of finding beauty in imperfection, appreciating the simplicity and depth of nature, and accepting the natural cycle of life.  For me, Wabi-Sabi in the kitchen is about being intentional and intuitive in how we prepare our meals.  It is less about exact measurements, and more about improvising with the ingredients you have on hand.  It’s about slowing down, enjoying the process and truly experiencing the food you’ve prepared.  

I come from a family where food is a way of life and was the basis of our livelihood.  There were no recipes or measuring cups or spoons – there was simply an inherent knowledge of ingredients, cooking times and methods, passed down from one generation to the next. When I was young, I used to watch my grandmother in the kitchen, using her fingers to pinch up little mounds of mustard seeds and cumin seeds for the vegetables she was cooking.  And my grandfather scooping water into his hands from a nearby pot to throw into the hot fryer to test if the oil was hot enough to start frying spicy samosas at our sweet and savory shop in Toronto.  

As I got older, I worked alongside my mother in a makeshift kitchen in our garage as she catered events around Denver.  Weddings, baby showers, Diwali parties – basically any large gathering of Indians within 50 miles of our house usually meant that my mom would be cooking and I would be serving as her hath vadko – directly translated as “hand bowl,” which in this context meant that I served as the sous chef/dishwasher/grocery store runner and in any other role my mom needed me to fill in those moments.  When I wasn’t washing a sink full of dishes, I was usually off to one side, peeling bags of potatoes, rolling out several hundred puris, tasting and critiquing dishes for missing ingredients, or stirring milk for hours in enormous cauldron-like pots so it wouldn’t stick to the bottom, as my mom, gracefully gliding from one end of the garage to the other, would transform large quantities of whole spices, lentils, vegetables, rice and other raw ingredients into Indian delicacies like navratan korma, saag paneer, kachoris, and ras malai – all without a single written recipe in sight.

Unlike my grandparents, or my mom, I actually do consult recipes – generally for ideas and inspiration more than anything else.  But, just like my grandparents and my mom, when I actually start cooking, I allow my senses and intuition to guide me.  I use my eyes and my hands to see and feel the ingredients I’m working with.  I use my fingers and palms to measure and add things to the various pots and pans on the stove or in the oven.  I listen for the hissing of hot oil or the crackling of peppers as they char over an open flame.  I use my nose to smell the sweet aroma of shallots and garlic cooking in ghee, adding in chopped greens and lemon juice and turning down the flame just before they begin to brown.  I taste the food at different stages of cooking, adjusting salt, and pepper and other spices as needed.  Unlike many other parts of my life, fear does not have a place in my kitchen.  When I cook I am creative and spontaneous – always ready to try something new.   And even with all this confidence and freedom, sometimes the end result is terrible.  

The thing is – we all make mistakes.  From time to time, the food we make, like the utensils in the crate in Paris, is less than perfect.  Sometimes the ingredients we put together, simply don’t work, or we’ve added too much salt, or left something on the stove too long.  It’s not always easy and when we’re hungry and tired after a long day, the easiest thing in the world is to throw in the towel and order take-out or eat some yogurt standing over the sink –and sometimes that is exactly what we do.  But, it is important to remember that any meal we make with our own two hands – or perhaps because we make it with our own two hands - regardless of its imperfection, is beautiful, and embracing the process and the imperfections, is when we learn the most about the food and about ourselves.