MY Nani (maternal grandmother) always used to say: "A recipe is but a recipe, flavour is in your hands, and no-one else’s flavour is the same." In a world where many guard their recipes, others share theirs openly and some are handed down – what is it that makes a recipe special? Is it the set of ingredients or is it the story the method tells? Or can we make any recipe our own, through the way we make it?

I've always been guided by the Urdu concept of "andaza" which literally translates as "estimation", but which I define as the art of sensory cooking. It is when you work through recollection, using your hands as tools and creating remembered flavours by trusting your mind and heart. Cooking something to eat is in essence an act of relying on your senses; touching, tasting and breathing in the scents at every stage.

Ultimately, the big question is, do we learn this instinctual cooking, or does it just come naturally? Many people are crippled by the very thought of deviating from a written recipe, lest it blow up in their faces and I have met many of such people while teaching cookery, but there are others who breeze effortlessly through the concept of trusting their intuition.

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Is it because it comes naturally to them, because they grew up experiencing it around them, or is it because they are talented? Some people are born with the flair of adding magic to anything they touch, but others can learn to trust their hand. It comes from feeling that, rather than being a slave to a recipe, you are simply using it as a guide, a lesson, concentrating less on its rigidity and more on it’s ethereal nuance. A recipe tells a story. Read it. Absorb it. Imagine what it will taste like from the memory of the sum of its parts. And then cook it, trusting you will know when you stop or start any process. The worst that can happen is that it won’t taste perfect this time. But there is always next time.

Understanding flavour isn’t learned forcefully, it is a combination of different personal exposure. It is a path we are put on from the moment we are born. Those first smells, flavours, textures and sounds we experience as babies, are imprinted in our minds and hearts, creating a memory. This is probably why we either find comfort in certain reassuring food memories or close our minds to ones that did not have a positive connotation.

We can learn to understand flavour at any time in our lives of course, and many people come to it later in life, finding a passion for different cuisines through travel, or merely a desire to cook good food at home, and that is fine. But without wanting to sound preachy, I believe it is important we encourage our children to learn to observe, listen, hear, taste and feel the food that is put before them. It means, trying to take at least one day a week to cook with them, or have them around while you’re cooking, letting them touch and understand where food comes from. Not everyone has this much time, but not making it is a shame. It is, in effect, robbing children of memories that will guide them to trust their hands in making the food on their table taste of happiness, love and comfort.

When I think back to my most treasured childhood memories, I am taken back to weekend lunches at either of my grandmothers' homes. The energy in the kitchen, an assembly of five aunts and my grandmother, each with their own job cutting, chopping, making pastes on the "sil bata" (large flat stone mortar and pestle). I can almost smell the fresh herbs, the haunting spices infusing in oil or the sharp tang of tamarind paste being squeezed. Each person in my family had their own flavour; using the same recipes, no two dishes every tasted the same.

Perhaps this is what andaza cooking does: creates individuality of flavour, which is why the same recipe never tastes the same made by different people. Perhaps because each person's own memory of flavour influences the uniqueness of the final dish.

Maybe it is still not too late for anyone to learn to use instinct. Taste curiously and hear the story – instinct will find its way through your hands and into the pot you’re cooking in. Use your cookbooks, but let their methods and not merely the ingredients, act as a guide; let them hold your hand on your journey towards trusting your own hands with flavour.

Sumayya’s mother’s Aaloo Ki Teyri (turmeric rice with potatoes)

I always make this recipe using "andaza", when I can smell the deep rich warmth of turmeric exuding from the pan as I lift the lid – I am transported back to Sunday lunches with my parents, growing up in Karachi.

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

1 small red onion, finely sliced

½ tsp grated ginger

½ tsp crushed garlic

2 tomatoes, chopped finely

1 teaspoon turmeric

3-4 baby potatoes, par-boiled, cut into two

80 grams basmati rice, washed and soaked for 1 hour before cooking

1 tablespoon dill or coriander leaves


Heat the oil in a saucepan (which has a lid). Once hot add cumin seeds, allow to splutter.

Add the red onion slices and soften, add ginger and garlic and cook until the raw smell leaves the pan.

If the garlic sticks to the pan, add a splash of water. Add tomatoes and allow to soften.

Next, add the turmeric and potatoes.

Stir and then add rice, add the dill leaves, toss, add enough water to lightly cover the rice. Then lower heat and cover the pan for 5-7 minutes, checking once or twice. If the water has been completely absorbed and the rice isn’t done, add a tiny bit more water. Do the same until rice and potatoes are totally cooked and water is completely absorbed (about 10 minutes).

Turn off heat and add remaining dill. Cover. Serve hot with a simple raita or yoghurt.