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Chaos Cooking - new words for an old thing

"Any food idea that makes you smile is a food idea to be embraced." Erin Shaw/Food Republic

"there is no "wrong." Only "try again tomorrow." Stacey Leasca/Food and Wine

As usual I am way behind the trend, the trend being Chaos Cooking. I'm behind because it began in the American Autumn of 2022. Well so somebody said, which is marginally curious because it's post COVID lockdowns, when we were no longer experimenting in the kitchen and scrounging meals from whatever we had in the fridge and cupboard. On the other hand I'm not behind because at its heart chaos cooking has been around forever.

So what is it? Well it's sort of fridge raid cooking, but I suppose, if I'm honest maybe the thing that distinguishes it from fridge raid cooking, and fusion food is possibly the word 'extreme'. It's not just using what you've got to make something eatable it's, according to Food Republic:

"throwing ingredients together that don't traditionally belong in the pursuit of something delicious." Fridge raid cooking is not looking for things that 'don't traditionally belong together' it's knowing what does go together and going from there. Even if what goes together might be radically different to what your mother might have thought.

The first article that I found on Chaos Cooking was from Huff Post and like many things in life, the first was probably the best. (A completely random thought - is first love the best? Maybe so just because it's the first.) But from the sublime - first love - to the ridiculous. Embedded in the article was a TikTok video which will make you cringe - an over the top American lady experimenting with weird and wonderful things, which Emily Laurence - the Huff Post writer describes:

"A TikTok video by user @MyCursedBrain is the perfect example of chaos cooking in action. In the clip, she combines edamame pasta, peanut butter, Everything But the Bagel seasoning, chili powder, cucumbers and a handful of other ingredients for her take on a peanut butter noodle dish." Emily Laurence/Huff Post

She's sort of right about the 'perfect example, no matter how much you might cringe - hang in there - it's sort of educational. For the world is full of such videos, such people, and yes, there's even a bit of exuberant invention in there. You might see the world through your grandchildren's eyes. Well in this case, if they were American I think.

Yes, of course, this is TikTok. Which makes me think that trends and fads are all in the name and also where they come from. Movements even. Emily Laurence, like myself, obviously thinks this kind of cooking has been around for a very, very long time - like her mother's 'musgo meals' - meals concocted from things that must go. 'Chaos Cooking' however, is catchy and alliterative and appeals to those who do not think they can do things, or who live in a constant state of chaos. Think young mothers. If you are interested go to #ChaosCooking and you will find many, many more examples.

There are some interesting beginnings however, beyond the musgo meals that every housewife has been concocting since cooking began. In the 70s there was fusion food which apparently began in France where chefs - and I mean chefs, not home cooks - began fusing French techniques and ingredients with Asian ones. It spread throughout the world. I remember well the restaurant Chinois in Toorak or South Yarra, can't remember which, where you would find interesting and utterly delicious food. And of course, these days what could roughly be called Australian food is directly descended from this.

As time went on, however, mistakes were made and some dishes became notorious rather than famous with the whole movement being called con-fusion by the cynics and naysayers. Examples of rubbished, but popular dishes are Wolfgang Puck's Buffalo chicken rolls and the Sushirrito, which is kind of a sushi but larger. And apparently we Australians have sort of been doing this all along by keeping the roll of sushi as one long roll rather than small pieces. It's the latest thing in New York - Australian sushi rolls. Go figure.

These things migrated to the food halls and homes of America - well the world probably, but chefs continued to do increasingly weird and wonderful things like Heston Blumenthal's Bacon and egg ice-cream. It's sort of chaos cooking in that the combination of ingredients is completely out of the box. But it's not spontaneous. Heston and his team would have spent months experimenting and coming up with the final thing.

Ditto for Ottolenghi, whose trademark is really unusual combinations, and experiments with new ingredients from anywhere His first OTK Cookbook - Shelf Love, also embraced the notion of Fridge raid cooking. For I do think that COVID did indeed introduce a new wave of innovation, waste reduction and deliciousness at home as well as in the Chef's laboratories. The picture is one of Ottolenghi's experiments with a standard comfort food - macaroni cheese, in which crisply deep fried onions are scattered over the top, za'atar features heavily with the result of a completely different taste. I can confirm that it was delicious and I shall be making it again sometime soon.

Besides isn't that what great chefs do, and have always done - innovate, experiment, create a new taste sensation or a new technique?

So perhaps I am coming round to the idea that Chaos Cooking is indeed something new, and slightly mad. And largely American. There was absolutely no reference to it in The Guardian, and the only Australian reference I found to it was a short article in delicious. which concluded with "So what does chaos cooking actually look like? Well, it depends on what’s in your pantry." I don't remember the supermarket magazines referring to it either.

Back to the Americans, and the here today gone tomorrow view of trends these days. In an article on Taste, the owner of a cake shop, and creator of one of these fads, the Nutellasagna - a kind of dessert which combined the concept of lasagne with Nutella told of that boom or bust thing:

"In spite of all of the attention, no one quite got the joke, which made us sad. Sadder still was watching the reputations we had spent years earning slowly dissolve, as more and more people began referring to us as “the Nutellasagna people.” Less than two months after Nutellasagna fever infected the globe, it was over. Instagram had moved on, and press requests that filled my inbox were now featured questions about what we’d be making to top the newest viral sensation: the rainbow bagel. A few months later we closed the bakery and moved out of Brooklyn." Allison Robicelli/Taste

This is the rainbow bagel. I have no idea where that stands now in the transient TikTok sensation world. Mind you apparently TikTok itself is jumping on the bandwagon:

"Last year, the company announced plans to open delivery-only “restaurants” across the U.S., offering viral dishes from the app." Angelo Comsti/Tatler Asia

Herewith a couple of other weird and wonderfuls: a pasta hamburger and Crab Rangoon mozzarella sticks. The first looks awful, the second very tempting. And here I will say that the majority of examples I saw were not what you would call healthy. Although I'm guessing that somewhere there is a health food subgenre of Chaos Cooking.

On the plus side, however, stupid and infantile you may think all of this it does have its good side in that it is encouraging creativity - and - yes - fun. I think Robert Carrier would have approved, but not Elizabeth David. Because it encourages:

"a lack of fear of messing things up or having to get something "right." Stacey Leasca/Food and Wine and is:

"multi-cultural cuisine that doesn’t just aim to marry but manages to be trolly and tasty." Angelo Comsti/Tatler Asia

The Huff Post had some tips from chefs and cooking schools on how you can have a go at home, and how to avoid disaster - ideas that are somewhat akin to those floated in my recent article on Cooking as a game. Some similarities but also some differences.

Center your dish around an ingredient you’re already good at cooking.

Figure out your theme - a particular cuisine, a dish, a technique, an ingredient

"This doesn’t mean that just because you’ve decided on pasta for your core ingredient, for example, you have to stick with using Italian seasonings. In fact, going an unexpected way is what this trend is all about." Emily Laurence/Huff Post

Add a wild-card ingredient - that jar of chutney - or, in my case - pickled peaches, lurking at the back of your fridge

Cook your ingredients separately - “If you are trying to cook [everything] at the same time in the same pan, you are destined to have sub-par results and poor textures. Almost always the pan is overcrowded, the temperature drops, and you end up with a soft, steamed mess instead of a combination of exciting textures and flavors.” Steven Chavez/Institute of Culinary Education - advice that is applicable at all times, not just to Chaos Cooking.

Make sure your ingredients balance each other out, flavor-wise. - "every great dish has at least some element of all the basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and rich. “They don’t all need to be in equal measure, but they all should be present for a meal to be truly delicious,” Ann Ziata/Institute of Culinary Education Again - applicable to all cooking. Salt, fat acid heat - said one other writer.

Add spices and flavors incrementally - "If you’re debating adding another ingredient to your dish, she says to think about why you want to add it first. If it’s to balance flavor or texture, go for it. If it’s just for the heck of it or in an effort to make something “viral,” you might want to skip it." Emily Laurence/Huff Post In the words of another article - 'Taste and tinker'.

Consider the texture - "If your dish has a lot of baked or roasted elements to it, she recommends adding a sauce to prevent it from feeling too dry. If your dish is soft and mushy, she recommends adding something toasted or fried for a crunchy or crispy texture." Emily Laurence/The Huff Post

And perhaps most importantly of all from one of the other articles I read: Ask Yourself What You’re In the Mood For.

And if you get it all wrong it really doesn't matter. There's always tomorrow.

I will end with another definition of Chaos Cooking from Corey Mintz a food writer for the Toronto Star. This also is a fad apparently - or was - the article dates back to 2013. Basically you invite a large number of people - he had 25 - into your kitchen to cook something all at the same time. Individually that is.

Chaos indeed. It was an experiment for him and he didn't intervene, other than to advise where his guests could find a particular gadget and provide drinks. He pronounced it a success not just for the food, but more for the sense of community it engendered:

"we can see the transition that every other guest goes through. They find a space, plunking down their ingredients and tools. Their faces tighten, chopping ginger with a pairing knife, cubing tofu with cleaver. After a few minutes, they look up, and they see that they are not alone, that everyone else is experiencing the same stress. And then they smile. They reach for their drink, take a sip, and ask the person next to them to borrow a peeler, or a pinch of cilantro.

And then, if you’ll forgive me a bit of hippie sentimentality, they are connected. Because they’re engaged in something practical. They’re not searching for a common interest; politics, television, the weather. They’re sharing a legitimate, if ephemeral bond, working together to accomplish a common goal, even if that is merely to prove me wrong."

Chaos indeed. It's a strange new world for we oldies and a strange mixture of things to admire - that anything goes, devil-may-care attitude, togetherness, recognition of the need to be resourceful, thrifty and environmentally conscious - and things which repel perhaps. Well chaos for a start I suppose and too much enthusiasm can be enervating and confidence busting. Ditto if you can't think of what to do that might be interesting.

Maybe it's never too late and I should throw caution to the winds. Put something like My Cursed Brain's Everything But the Bagel Seasoning into the mix. Do I have anything like that? Well I do actually have a few unlabelled spice jars. Maybe I should try one of them.

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