What do you mean, too much fish sauce? Photo: Stocksy
My mother isn't a huge risk taker. In her cooking life, however, she is a different person – her chutzpah matched only by an extraordinary optimism. In our kitchen, anything goes: tinned fruit with sautéed pork, lemongrass Spam, large segments of meat cooked just long enough to give our one-bathroom household an adrenalin jolt.
Faced with unusual leftovers, Mum would take on her most ambitious projects. To revive the day-old fries from my sister's McDonald's birthday party, for example, she decided to put them in a Cantonese chicken stew. Spuds and fries were the same thing once, she reasoned. How bad could it be?
In these moments, Dad is the only one who pushes on stoically. Not once have I seen him complain or panic in the face of Mum's nonconformist cooking. It was as if with each meal, he was sending the same message: to love is to gamble, sometimes gastrointestinally.
But if the success of a long-term relationship rests partially on a 'don't ask, don't tell' kitchen policy, what makes it such a sensitive subject to discuss in the first place?
The truth is, we often stay quiet about a partner's cooking habits until it feels "too late" to say anything.
Modern dating rituals are partly to blame. While it's easy to feel compatible over a delicious wine and our separate mains, learning about each other's private food rituals can be rather sobering.
Does your partner drown their food in sauces? Activate everything? Do they put meat on the frying pan before the oil is even hot, and thereby signalling their inability to wait/ plan ahead/ raise children/ commit to a mortgage? By the time you notice these things, however, you are likely to be a little bit in love. And it might feel unwise to risk a relationship over the art of steak-frying.
Talking about each other's cooking can feel like a high-stakes game. So what to do if you are genuinely shaken by a kitchen pet peeve, and have, like all reasonable adults, tried and failed to "get over it"?
1. My partner is a rookie cook/can't follow recipes
The fact is, early hiccups are rarely signs of something fatal. A friend of mine moved in with someone who was a promising beginner cook, but it never occurred to him to make sides. Every meal was a series of protein progression – though no one was paleo – until my friend gently corrected the course by making her own carbs and vegetables in time.
Noma's head chef Rene Redzepi once said a "manual on basic human interaction" beats the best cookbook. "When people feel more confident, [they] cook better. They make good decisions in critical moments, and that is what cooking is. Does it need a little more salt? A little less? That's the difference between success and failure." The bottom line? Encouragement is key.
2. They are always cooking the same thing
My ex-partner used to make something we called "World Famous Chicken Wings". The term "world" here, meaning the two of us. Perhaps especially him. It was a delicious batch of sticky grilled wings that was cheap to buy and easy to make. We ate those – sometimes once a week – for a breathtaking number of years. But the reason he kept making them was because I often worked late and he was the main cook. And it was goddamn hard to think of new dishes. (See: Mum's lemongrass Spam.)
When your dinners feel too samey (and you're not the designated cook), ask yourself: Is one of us too busy? Does my partner deserve a break? Is it time to quit my whinging?
3. There is a dish I hate that keeps returning
"When people enter the kitchen, they often drag their childhood in with them," said the late novelist and beloved food writer, Laurie Colwin. Sadly, what forms someone's "earliest idea of comfort", is often just bland food for the rest of us.
Nostalgia does amazing things. A friend who fell ill was recently treated to a homemade 'meat tea' by his new partner. It was as touching as it was perplexing. If the 'returning dish' is a childhood favourite, say thank you and know that they probably also can't stand your Bovril/haggis/fermented beans/coddled eggs.
4. We have completely different taste
The person who shares your hopes, dreams and Netflix access needs not always share your taste in food. As The Kitchn's blogger Casey Carber says, "separate meals don't mean separate lives". What's more, you can attempt to subdivide: make your own main, but share the sides – budget and time permitting.
Quotidian challenges aside, there's a reason why our partner's acceptance of our cooking feels so personal. To quote author Steve Almond, "It is certainly true that cooking is therapeutic, creative, and all those other faintly creepy self-helplsh words… But I learned to cook for a much simpler reason: in the abject hope that people would spend time with me if I put good things in their mouths."
Why else, do we ever do anything – after all?
Follow Candice on Twitter @candicechung_