Sybil Kapoor MJrnl006.jpg

The food writer and Marylebone resident on the roots of her career-defining book, the differences between flavour and taste, and why the spoon you eat your porridge with really matters

Interview: Mark Riddaway
Portrait: Christopher L Proctor
Food images: Keiko Oikawa

Sybil Kapoor, one of the country’s most widely admired food writers, has been living in Marylebone since 1999, and the character of the area has, in the intervening decades, proved vital to her work. “As a food writer, the shops are great—you can get virtually everything you need, but what I love most about living here is that it is laid out in an 18th century way that makes it a pleasure to wander around,” she says. “The way Marylebone has developed over the years allows you to walk everywhere, and think about things as you do.”

‘Thinking about things’ is the Kapoor way. Unlike most cookbook writers, who come up with a simple theme and then bang out some recipes that broadly fit the bill, Sybil’s approach tends to be a little more cerebral, characterised by painstaking research and a desire to produce books that are meaningful as well as useful. The result is usually that elusive blend of clever and accessible—and never more so than in her newly published magnum opus, Sight Smell Touch Taste Sound: A New Way to Cook.

Your new book is unusual in the volume of research that has gone into producing it, and the length and depth of the resulting copy. It seems to be a proper book rather than a recipe collection.
It is the culmination of all the thinking I’ve done about food and how one cooks—how I cook—over many, many years. Hopefully it’s not my final book, but it has something of that feeling about it—I wanted to get down everything I thought about food. I also had a wonderful commission: I was allowed to write lots of words. A lot of cookbooks these days, you have some recipes, you have some pictures, but you’re very tight on how much wordage you can put in. I had this great proposition: the publishers wanted to bring back the idea of books like those of Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David, which you’d read from cover to cover. Those are the cookbooks I’ve always loved the most.

How would you sum up its theme?
It is based on how we, as people, eat and—working back from that—how we cook. Everyone in the world has the same five senses: taste, smell, sight, sound and touch. All of those affect how you perceive food. You see it, you smell it, you taste it, you feel it—both its texture and its temperature. Even sound matters: everything from the noise of opening a bag or breaking a breadstick, to how it sounds when you put it in your mouth. Different people interpret the results of these senses in different ways, but everyone’s experience of food is a combination of them all. I want people to think about and trust their own senses.

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What do you want readers to take from it?
I want people to see new things that they hadn’t seen before, step back and look at food in a different way. It’s about little experiments. We can learn from something as small as, for example, taking two pieces of toast, buttering them both very quickly, then eating one of them hot and the other tepid. Compare the mouthfeel, flavour and texture, and you’ll become instantly aware of how different they are. Or, if you try eating porridge off a wooden spoon, and then off a metal spoon, the texture of the porridge feels different—or at least it does to me. Every recipe in the book has a point to it; each one helps to illustrate in some way how our senses work.  If you understand how all those senses feed into your experience of food, it can help you to be a better cook.

To what extent does culture define our preferences?
A great deal. How we each perceive food is partly about science, but it is also about memory, experience and culture. Texture is very interesting: different cultures have quite different approaches. For example, the Japanese love slimy, slithery textures, while the British love crunchy textures and are wary of anything slimy. The same with noise: in the Far East, it’s perfectly normal to make sucking noises as you eat, and it helps to get more flavour into your food as you bring air into your mouth, but that’s considered the height of rudeness in Britain. There’s a bit in the book where I encourage people to try working with textures they might instinctively dislike. Okra is slightly slimy—I’ve done an okra curry that I hope will be a way of wooing people in. I’ve done a Thai salad, which is quite squeaky, and squeaky noises in the mouth are another thing the British don’t usually enjoy. There’s also a tapioca recipe. People think of it as that nasty, slippery thing from school—we used to call it ‘frog spawn’—but it’s an amazing vehicle for flavour. I’ve done one with coconut and diced mango, and it’s just to die for.

Like most people, I’ve always used ‘taste’ and ‘flavour’ as synonyms, so I was surprised to learn from your book that they’re not...
It’s very simple. There are only five tastes that we know—sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami—and we can only perceive them through water-soluble compounds detected in the mouth. Flavour relates to your sense of smell and is derived from airborne compounds that are released as you chew, which go up through your nasal passages. A very simple test is with a slice of lemon. Squeeze its zest so that some of the oils are released into your nostrils, and that’s the flavour of lemon: bright and citrusy. Bite into the flesh, and that’s its taste: sour.

Do our responses to taste and flavour differ?
We are born with a basic recognition of the five tastes, but we learn flavour. All the time, you’re discovering and reacting to new flavours, depending on your experiences and environment. Reactions to taste are based on something more primitive: sweetness means energy, and is desirable from a very young age; bitter is often a warning device for something that could be poisonous, so we only grow to like bitter as we get older; sourness suggest un-ripeness, so we develop that appreciation too; salt is something we need in moderation, so we crave it in small quantities but are put off by having too much.

In recent years, particularly with the growth of Instagram, the aesthetics of food have become far more important. Are there any downsides to that emphasis on the visual?
When I grew up, food was beige. You might add a piece of parsley, tomato or lemon—they were the three pointless garnishes used to break up the sea of beige. Colour became important in the 1980s, but social media has really changed how food is presented in restaurants and supermarkets: presentation is so much more important now. That can be a good thing, but there’s a danger in it, too. I was on holiday in Italy and was given an absolutely delicious wild boar stew. It was just brown gunk on a plate, it looked like school dinners. But one mouthful and you were completely blown away. If that chef had been concerned about Instagram hits, it wouldn’t be on the menu—it was just so unappetising to look at—but it tasted wonderful. As cooks, it’s important that we don’t only make things that look amazing.

Before you were a food writer, you had a long and successful career as a chef. How did you end up on that path?
I didn’t go to university. Instead, I was made to do a secretarial course, and I was the world’s worst secretary. I hated it. A friend of mine had a sister who was cooking for company directors’ dining rooms, and she suggested I give it a try. I went along to an agency and they sent me in as an assistant. I was chopping onions, peeling potatoes—and I realised that I absolutely loved it. So, even though I’d had no training or experience, I set myself up as a cook. These companies had huge budgets. They’d request the menu they wanted (it was usually steak), I’d look up how to make it, then go shopping in the morning in places like Harrods, then go into their offices and cook for the directors. I was following recipes that I’d never cooked before. Most of the time it worked, sometimes it didn’t—I managed to get fired several times.

How did you end up a restaurant chef?
One of many recessions came along, and those huge budgets disappeared, so I went to work at the ICA for an amazing man called Justin de Blank, who had a series of restaurants. They were a crazy crowd, just the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. The kitchen was full of South Americans, people from Papua New Guinea, people from all over the place. Everyone was lovely, the food was great, we had ingredients coming in from Rungis market in Paris; I thought, this is it, this is the life. I presumed all restaurants were like that. My mother agreed to send me to Leith’s for three months to do an advanced cookery course, which I very nearly failed. But I passed, I had a certificate, I started working in restaurants—and they turned out to be completely different to the ICA! It was very tough indeed.

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Was there a particular restaurant that influenced your thinking?
My big break came when I went to the States to work at a restaurant called Jams, run by the chef Jonathan Waxman and Melvyn Master, an English wine expert. I became their sous chef, and it completely changed how I cooked. At the time, Britain was in the grip of nouvelle cuisine, and I wasn’t good at neat and pretty. I couldn’t do incy wincy, bitsy things. Jams was doing amazing, bold, beautiful food, and I could do that, I understood how they thought. It was local, seasonal ingredients, a bit of French philosophy, a bit of Italian, a bit of Californian. I came back here and became Sally Clarke’s head chef very soon after she opened, and I went on from there. I was a chef for 13 years, then started writing.

Do you ever miss being a chef?
No, there is a buzz about it, but I don’t miss the stress, the worry about whether the kitchen porter’s coming in, the long hours, the sheer exhaustion. The advantage of being a food writer is that I still have all the creativity, all the joy of cooking, but I also have the luxury of sitting in front of the telly at night with my husband. I have always loved writing. Even when I was cheffing in the States I was trying to get writing jobs as well—although, as is seemingly usual for me, I didn’t really know what I was doing!

How would you characterise your approach to recipes?
I’m quite analytical. I know some people are put off by that word—we like things to be emotional—but actually, to understand how things work enriches you so much. Hopefully I do it in a fun and evocative way, but I want people to have the security of knowing that a) they’ll understand what I mean and b) it’ll work when they do it. Certainly, in the food world, I have a reputation for writing recipes that work, which isn’t true of everyone. My recipes are also very personal, though. I have to love eating them—that’s absolutely essential. Even if my husband occasionally doesn’t love them (we have different palates), if I love them, I’ll include them in my books. My style of cooking draws on influences from all over the world, as I’ve travelled enormously. I love British food, and I’ve written about it extensively, but we can learn so much from other cultures.

What, to you, is ‘British food’?
When my first book, Modern British Food, was published, I got a lot of flak for including things like pasta. People would say, “That’s not British food.” And I would say, “It is, we’ve been eating pasta since long before we started eating potatoes, and we cook it in a uniquely British way.” I think British taste is defined not just by ingredients but by attitude. We pare things back, there’s a simplicity. You look at a car like an E-type Jag: that’s British design, minimal but beautiful. The same with clothes—people like Alexander McQueen—and with food. Also, there’s a cultural openness, a willingness to take ideas and interpret them in an interesting, dynamic way. I think it’s a big difference between us and the French. If you look at how the British use spices—I think we have a far greater willingness to use them in many different ways, and have done for centuries. I mean, we were eating pasta in the 13th century—this openness is not something new.

FoodMark Riddaway