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"Perfect until you make it better"

I wrote that quote down recently as a potential subject for this blog. However, when I decided to do it today - inspired by something else, which I shall come to in a minute, I couldn't remember where the quote came from. So I googled it and found it - it's yet another ad. This time for Leggo's. So have a quick look because it is sort of about my subject for today - inspired by another potential cooking class with the grandkids.

After last week's somewhat disappointing Nigella recipe for chicken and orzo and because my younger granddaughter is very keen to show us all to make naan, she suggested we do a curry next time. So I thought long and hard and in the end decided to do kofta curry - meatballs if you didn't know that. This time I told myself I would not go to the internet for inspiration but would check out my favourite Indian cooks - Madhur Jaffrey and Charmaine Solomon, plus my other major Indian cookbook which I often forgetfully ignore - The Encyclopedia of Indian Cooking by Khalid Aziz. But this post is not about which recipe is best for my cooking class plus a mini dissertation on the dish itself. No this is about searching for perfection.

Actually in my mind there is no such thing as perfection - unless you are using it as a complimentary adjective in a restaurant or to a friend who has cooked you something beautiful. And you don't possibly mean it then either.

Perfection is as far as you can go surely? By definition perfect is something that cannot be bettered. It's perfect and here are some dictionary definitions (other than 'the state of being perfect') to prove that:

  • the state of being complete and correct in every way - Cambridge Dictionary

  • Perfection is the quality of being as good as it is possible for something of a particular kind to be - Collins Dictionary

  • The action or process of improving something until it is faultless - Oxford Dictionary

Thus it is impossible to be better than perfect. So how can Leggo's say "perfect until you make it better"?

Well, of course, they are saying that their product is perfect - in this case tomato purée and one of their tomato sauces - but they also go on to say - and this is what I am trying in my lame way to talk about - "You're already thinking ahead to personal touches aren't you? ... to pictures of this and dashes of that ..." And when I was looking for my kofta curry recipe this is indeed what I found. Everyone was trying to not just add their personal touch but also trying to make it better - well I assume that is what they were doing as it was always their recipe that was published not the original.

"Of course we all know that perfect doesn't really exist. We can always do better. There's always something beyond the current definition of perfect. But I don't think it's a handicap. I think it's a necessity." Patrick O'Connell (chef)

Besides 'perfection' is another one of those very subjective words surely? What is perfect for me is not perfect for anyone else. For example - since we are talking about curry - how hot should it be? There is no definitive answer to this surely?

Chefs - well ambitious chefs anyway - are always striving for what they see as perfection but I'm pretty sure even the top, top chefs of the world with a 'signature' dish are constantly thinking of ways they can improve upon it.

"I think you can go down a dark road if you're trying to be the best or perfect at everything. I think it's a trap." Brian Canlis (restaurateur)

But back to we ordinary mortals and kofta curry. I decided to focus on Madhur Jaffrey's recipe from a book called Curry Nation, which is apparently based on a recipe from a particular restaurant in Edinburgh, and a chef called Jagdish Kaur. This is a photograph from the SBS site which has published the recipe. As I don't have the book I don't know whether the recipe that you find there is the absolute original, but I am assuming it is, and anyway I'm going to take it as my reference.

There are, of course, endless recipes for meatball curries from all over the place, with recipes from well-known chefs, bloggers, Indian chefs - well everyone really. But I'm not talking about how one can vary a particular concept. No - I'm looking at what happens to one specific recipe when it goes out into the world.

I decided on a Madhur Jaffrey recipe because she is perhaps the most well-known exponent of Indian food on the internet, and many, many people try out her recipes and organisations such as SBS and the BBC publish the original. Some bloggers take recipes such as this one, and basically just reprint it - sometimes without even acknowledging where it came from. Others expand on the instructions and talk about the ingredients, but don't alter the recipe. Some go one step further and tweak the recipe to a greater or lesser degree. So let's see what some of them do.

The first is from a website called Kitchen Flavours and is perhaps the most true to Madhur Jaffrey - except for one glaring difference - the meatballs are made from pork mince not lamb. Everything else is exactly the same, other than a tiny elaboration in the instructions:

"Instructions in the recipe say to shake the pan gently, but I've turned the meatballs over. The meatballs are soft so turn them over gently." Madhur said to shake them precisely because they are so soft, she suggests moving them about after about ten minutes by which time they will be finer - so one has to wonder who is right here. And I guess it looks similar.

Next is this one from Helen Graves of Food Stories and she does her own thing:

"I based the spicing on a Madhur Jaffrey Curry Bible recipe but added more meatballs, swapped in some fresh green chillies, omitted a few things I couldn’t care less for and garnished with crispy onions. To make the meatballs really light, I took the apparently inauthentic approach of adding bread soaked in water" Helen Graves - Food Stories

I mean - "omitted a few things I couldn’t care less for ..." Which really means that Madhur Jaffrey's recipe is just a starting point. In fact she takes a somewhat superior tone. Her spices are actually quite different. Also I'm a bit confused by her statement that she added more meatballs as she only uses 450g of meat whereas Madhur Jaffrey uses a kilo. Go figure. Now I'm not saying that it wouldn't be absolutely delicious - it looks pretty good, but it certainly is only vaguely connected to Madhur Jaffrey's original. And obviously her readers agree with her improvisations because they weigh in with a couple more suggestions:

"I always use oatmeal instead of breadcrumbs in my meatballs. Try adding sultanas or dried apricot as well." - now that would change the taste completely.

"Regarding the sauce, I’d be inclined to toast a few whole cumin seeds before adding the onions to the pan, but that’s me and not you." - at least this lady recognises the subjectivity of all of this.

Better than perfect? We are assuming Madhur Jaffrey is perfection here, which is, of course, erroneous. No - not better than - just almost completely different.

Next is Vikalinka which is a blog created by one Julia Frey and these look different again. In her introduction she says:

"I did take some liberties with the original, and I might’ve inadvertently combined two different regions of India in one recipe.

When my creative juices start flowing, I get carried away. It’s okay, we love unity, right?! (what does that mean? Unity with who?) ... The sauce is all about the spice and BOLD flavour notes. I also finished it off with just a splash of single cream to tame the heat just a little ... I also added in a bunch of chopped kale for some extra nutrition and colour! Feel free to use spinach, peas, green beans…anything you like!" Julia Frey - Vikalinka

She sure did take some liberties - for starters her spice mix for the sauce was out of a jar - specifically Patak's Madras Spice Paste, though she tells us that we can use whatever we like. Now I have nothing against Patak's spice pastes - I use them myself, but not if I'm following an actual recipe. The meatballs themselves have actual spices in them but it's actually far more complicated than Madhur Jaffrey's recipe which just uses garam masala, chilli flakes and green chillies. The cream (or coconut milk) at the end is out of Julia Frey's head.

Again I'm not necessarily rubbishing her recipe but it's a long way from Madhur. A different kind of perfection anyway. Maybe I'm missing the point about what that kind of recipe focussed blogging is all about. Maybe the point is to show that anyone can play around with anything and come up with something better. Which is maybe a very valid thing to do.

Last of all there is the Spice Adventuress who at least is an Indian lady who immigrated to Melbourne in 2013. I have to say this looks delicious and she doesn't change the recipe all that much. She just tweaks the quantities a little, adds some ajowan seeds to the meatballs, and omits the bay leaves from the curry. In fact a rather more professional kind of tweaking I think, that may indeed be attempting to improve on the original. And when one of her readers said she was going to try a vegetarian version she just politely responded that:

"I am sure the vegetarian version will also be fantastic."

Now vegetarian meatballs - a misnomer if ever there was one - are a perfectly valid thing, and Madhur Jaffrey has recipes for them too, but they are a different thing altogether.

Ok - I've rambled on for long enough and it's probably not all that interesting in itself, but I hope that it's a small demonstration of how, when it comes to food, we just can't seem to resist tinkering and modifying to suit our own personal ideas of perfection - or at least our own personal preferences. If I were to try this recipe for example, I would not have as much chilli in the mix, because of David, and I possibly might have used beef rather than lamb although I think that might just depend on availability. Lamb mince is not always in our supermarkets. But I certainly wouldn't be suggesting my changes were improvements, just adjustments to personal likes and dislikes. Perfection doesn't happen in this household that often believe me.

Leggo's in their ad, maintain that after hundreds of years (really?) of perfecting their sauce they won't fiddle with perfection, but they are encouraging you to use their perfection to create your own. And I guess that's what all those bloggers thought they were doing with their small or large adjustments.

"We will never achieve perfection, but if we chase perfection, we will achieve excellence." Vince Lombardi

A nice thought but not always possible.


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