x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Short order

Micro-recipes on the social networking website Twitter are grabbing the attention of foodies.

Scott Hallsworth, the executive chef of Mirai, reads a Twitter recipe for mango yakisoba on his BlackBerry at the restaurant's kitchen in Dubai's Souk Al Bahar.
Scott Hallsworth, the executive chef of Mirai, reads a Twitter recipe for mango yakisoba on his BlackBerry at the restaurant's kitchen in Dubai's Souk Al Bahar.

Twitter - what exactly is it for? Just when you thought the web's latest social networking phenomenon was only good at needlessly keeping you updated about the mundane minutiae of other people's lives ("Just been 2 Spinneys 2 buy deodorant, LOL!") or the ill-advised musings of professional footballers on their employment status, along come Twitter recipes.

In essence, these online cooking instructions, or "twecipies", are like any other recipe - a step-by-step guide to assist in the creation of a dish. But there is one little difference. Like all messages, or tweets, posted on the microblogging site, the recipes are condensed into 140 characters or less, which often makes for some beguiling abbreviations and gives the appearance of a top-secret code that even the Enigma machine would find difficult to crack.

Take this example from the American entrepreneur, TV personality and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart's Twitter page: "Grill Veal Chops - Mix 4T soft butt 1.5T Dijon 1T chop shallot & parsly & tarragn&chive 2 chops on hot grill/turn+brush w/herb but til done." Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management it most certainly isn't, but this new format is nevertheless capturing the attention of a new generation of online gourmets.

Twitter has recently become a sounding board for celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay and the Food Network's Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis and Dave Lieberman. They use the medium to keep their fans up to date - whether it's an off-the-cuff comment about a great dining experience they've just had or a more calculated alert for an upcoming commercial project. Ruth Reichl, the former restaurant critic for The New York Times and the current editor of Gourmet magazine, often regales her Twitter followers with fascinating insights into her daily life ("Just back from the supermarket. I so love strolling the aisles, revelling in all that abundance. Makes me feel so fortunate") and even the occasional dose of product placement ("No coffee in the house so I'm making Battery Charger tea from Lamill. Will use gorgeous new Illy espresso machine when I get to the office").

Yet it would appear that some of Twitter's more useful and interesting foodie pages have been uploaded by enthusiastic amateurs. Maureen Evans is an American Twitterer living in Northern Ireland. With more than 16,000 followers, her recipe page (www.twitter.com/cookbook) promises "delicious ideas from all over the globe". A home cook rather than a chef, she has described her online output as "a coffee-break hobby, kind of like sudoku", and a glance at her tweets reveals all kinds of coded recipes boiled down to their bare bones.

Those ready for the challenge can sift through the abbreviations (+ for add, c for cup and EVOO for extra virgin olive oil) and attempt to rustle up dinner. For those of us who need a little more help, there's a link to an invaluable cookbook glossary with all the shortened terms explained. Still, having dispensed with the seemingly superfluous chaff of conventional recipes, these minimalist sets of instructions can pose a prickly puzzle for even the most experienced of cooks - as I was to find out.

Intrigued by the Twitter recipe phenomenon, I logged on to Evans's page and selected two recipes at random with the intention of turning them into an edible repast if not a culinary masterpiece: "Mango Yakisoba: saute 2T oil/thyme&garlic/c leek&shroom 9m; +c mango/.5t redcurrypaste/4T lemon/T tamari&mint. Toss +4oz/100g al dente soba." "Blueberry Tart: cut8T buttr/c flour/2T sug/dash salt;+T vinegr. Pat in pan;+3c berries/8T sug/2T flour/dash cinn. 45m@400F/205C;+2c berries."

I must admit, I had my doubts. If I have taken the trouble to go on the internet, I might as well put the name of any dish of my choosing into Google and sit back while links to thousands of web pages flash up, many of them with detailed recipes, step-by-step photo guides and even videos. After all, if I'm paying hard-earned money for fresh ingredients, I want to make sure they turn out right rather than waste good food. But wouldn't that be like taking a sneaky peek at a sudoku solution before attempting the puzzle? Entering into the spirit of things, I resolved to follow the recipes to the letter (and the plus sign and the oblique slash), so I made a printout and took a trip to the supermarket.

It was there that I discovered one of the handier aspects of the micro-recipe: they're so short that you don't need a shopping list. All of the main ingredients were laid out succinctly and were perfectly self-explanatory, with terms such as "shroom", "buttr" and "cinn" not requiring any military code-breaking skills. In fact, not only was I able to whizz through my shopping in record time, but by the time I was finished I'd pretty much absorbed the preparation procedure of the recipes from start to finish.

In the kitchen, it was a slightly different story. The mango yakisoba recipe called for me to sauté some thyme, garlic, leek and mushrooms in oil - but what kind of oil? A conventional recipe would no doubt have expressed whether it was regular vegetable oil, olive oil or - since the recipe was of an Asian bent - toasted sesame oil that was needed. It was here that I had to call on my cooking experience and go with my gut feeling. Sesame oil it was, although I was careful to follow the exact quantity guide of two tablespoons.

With my mango diced and added along with the red curry paste, it was time to toss the sautéed mixture with the al dente soba noodles. Without a photograph to compare it to, I wondered if the damp, steaming jungle floor of noodles, mushrooms and bits of mango that I had created should really look like that. And when I tasted it, I was sceptical as to whether such a seemingly harmless thing as a Twitter recipe should really be burning the inside of my mouth as if a pyromaniac with a bucket of lighter fluid had been let loose in it.

Undeterred, I shifted my attention to the blueberry tart, apparently a "no fail" recipe passed on to Evans by "margiedee and her friend, 90-year-old Augusta". I felt like a 190-year-old as I squinted to decipher the first few characters of the recipe. Did it really mean eight tablespoons of butter to just one cup of flour, I wondered as the glossy Lurpak consumed the rest of the ingredients like some kind of relentless butter monster. The next instruction was to take the mixture and "pat in pan", but it was so moist and gooey, perhaps it should have read "slop in pan"? It still didn't look right as I offloaded three cups of expensive blueberries on to the buttery batter, doused the whole lot in sugar and banged it in the oven for 45 minutes. I'll admit that the cooking aromas were sublime, even if the finished article was rather less than cordon bleu.

Although not a complete disaster, my initial foray into the world of Twitter recipes had gone less than swimmingly. But in order to give the new format a fighting chance, I enlisted the help of a professional. Scott Hallsworth is the executive chef at Mirai, a contemporary Japanese restaurant that recently opened in Dubai's Souk Al Bahar. Before the Australian's latest venture, he was the head chef at Nobu London for six years, he opened Nobu Melbourne, and he wrote a book called The Japanese Foie Gras Project. With a CV as impressive as that, I thought, Hallsworth was just the man to turn a twecipe into a twiumph.

I met him at Mirai on a quiet Thursday afternoon before the storm of a weekend evening service. It was at this juncture that he casually admitted that he was not very familiar with Twitter. He whipped out his BlackBerry, looked at the twecipe I'd sent by e-mail just 24 hours ago and made the same squinting look as I did when attempting to decode mine. But my spirits perked up when we entered the kitchen, a gleaming palace of pristine surfaces with a selection of precision Japanese knives and utensils laid out in wait for the challenge. If anybody was going to demonstrate the true worth of the mango yakisoba Twitter recipe, it was Hallsworth - if only he could find a cup with which to measure his mushrooms.

In restaurant kitchens, ingredients are either precisely measured on scales or according to the intuition and experience of the chef. But since this recipe had to be painstakingly followed to the letter, a cup-less Hallsworth was instantly at a disadvantage. However, whereas I'd used plain old button mushrooms in my recipe, he trumped them with a fancy combination of shiitake, shimenji and eryngii mushrooms. "I'm always sceptical with mango recipes," he revealed while chopping the mushrooms with lathe-like accuracy. "You usually find them in dodgy holiday destinations, and they call the recipes 'prawn Bahamas' or something equally ridiculous."

The ingredients went into the pan, and as I watched him spoon half a teaspoon of red curry paste into the mix, I suddenly realised why my interpretation of the recipe had nearly blown my head off with its nuclear potency. I'd neglected to take notice of the decimal point preceding the number five, plonking in five whole teaspoons of the red stuff instead. Silly boy. While cooking, Hallsworth had good things to say about the simplicity of the Twitter recipe, recalling a conversation he once had with Jamie Oliver. "He said he likes honest food that's not too fancy, and that Nobu's food was as fancy as it should ever get - there's something about not losing the natural beauty of the actual ingredients with too much fuss." Sadly, despite meticulously following the recipe, Hallsworth's best efforts were rewarded with a less than attractive melange of noodles, mango and vegetables that looked only marginally more appealing than my effort the previous night. "Do we have to take a picture of this? Surely we don't want to inflict that on the public," he protested.

After forlornly picking at his creation with a pair of chopsticks and trying a mouthful, he was nothing if not honest about the experiment. "It's edible, if you're starving," he said. "But no way would I serve that. The mushrooms are nice but the mango - that's crazy. Probably, there's some value in the recipe - maybe someone thinks mango tastes good with food like this - but I think it's absolutely nuts. The whole idea of the Twitter recipe is probably reasonably valid, but this is just down to somebody else's taste."

I gave it a try and it was so flat I almost yearned for the fiery blast of the extra four-and-a-half teaspoons of red curry paste. "Of course, the level of seasoning isn't what I'd suggest either," Hallsworth agreed. "I'd suggest more tamari or something like that because I think the seasoning was too low. The garlic, leeks and mushrooms smelled quite good in the beginning, but the amount of noodles was probably too much for the dish. More curry paste would have added an umami taste, a savoury flavour. Half a teaspoon probably wasn't enough.

"I thought somebody had got it wrong at first," he remarked of the recipe. "I thought, 'This can't be right.' I just assumed straight away that it was meant to be so abbreviated into so many characters, and that that was a bit of a laugh, a bit of fun. It's a challenge to try and make something taste good following such a recipe. Part of the challenge is doing it again, because it would have to taste right next time. It's a challenge, but in a whimsical way, perhaps. It's not something that's relevant to the restaurant industry, but as someone who likes to cook at home as well, it's kind of a bit of fun. It might be something that, when my son's old enough, he would play around with. I'm not saying it's just for kids, but it's at a different level to restaurant level."

Are Twitter recipes a good idea? I asked. "Not for me, no," he replied, frankly. "I think they're a good idea if you're a younger person getting into messing around with food. It's only got to be positive, right? I don't think it would ever be a substitute for real recipes, but it will maybe encourage people to head towards them. I don't think it'll last forever. It's a bit of a fad. It's not the future. I think that's pretty safe to say."

Whether it's a fad or the future, the Twitter recipe, with its tricky abbreviations and condensed content, may well present a cool and contemporary challenge for the culinarily inclined. But, as I found out, it can just as easily leave you feeling like something of a twit. @Email:jbrennan@thenational.ae