I imagine most of us have known someone, perhaps a family member, who’s cooking was just a cut above anyone else’s, regardless of the ingredients or occasion. (I’m referring to home cooking, not trained restaurant chefs,)
What qualities did that fine cook have that explains their success? That is the question this article by Reem Kassis in the NY Times attempts to answer by exploring the Arabic word “nafas.”
Like many words without an exact equivalent in the English language, nafas could translate to “breath” or “spirit.” But in the context of cooking, nafas is much more than that. It is an energy some people possess that makes their meals not only good, but exceptional.
The title of the article refers to “the elusive gift that makes food taste better” and, in places, suggests it is something mysterious or indefinable that prompts the question whether it is innate or learned.
But, in the end, Kassis supplies a plausible and concrete answer:
It is the time and energy spent selecting and preparing the ingredients; the patient dance back and forth with seasonings until every flavor is just right; the generous presentation and warm hospitality; and, above all, the love of cooking and the desire to feed others.
Time, patience, and generosity are the ingredients but that all flows from how much one loves cooking. By “love cooking” I don’t mean tolerate it, like it when you’re in the mood, or when you have time. And I don’t mean love for the people you feed. Lots of loving people are not great cooks
I mean a focused, persistent joy in the process of cooking itself, not just the results.
If one has that kind of immersion in the tasks of cooking, all the other virtues one needs—patience, concentration, a willingness to explore, test, and correct, a knowledge of how to build flavor, and a willingness to seek out the best ingredients—will follow naturally.
It isn’t rocket science but it requires attention to detail and experience that isn’t rote or mere habit but enables the accumulation of knowledge and intuition over time. Only love will motivate that kind of persistent concentration.
It’s a cliché to say that great cooking comes from love. But sometimes unoriginal thoughts are true.