The state of water


Klein JAN was born from a dream – a dream of a restaurant in a remote location one can only access by taking a detour. Somewhere one would want to drive to especially to savour food. What better place to bring this vision to life than the Kalahari, an arid landscape that, despite its harshness, teems with life? Here, those who live off the land and understand it knows above all else that there can be no life without water. 

In the comfort of the city, it is hard to imagine that something, as overlooked as water, can be another’s obsession.  It’s a key ingredient often overlooked and often missing in recipe books. And when every drop counts, you realise it is the most essential element of all. 

At Klein JAN, being part of a culinary family at a restaurant so far removed from civilisation, we cannot help but be humbled by the importance of this precious element in a region where it is so scarce. It’s an element that is vital for human survival. Therefore, we celebrate it daily by cherishing every drop and handling it with the great respect it deserves. 

This week, we, therefore, pay homage to it to remind ourselves of the crucial role this often-overlooked element plays in the kitchen. 

The way that water interacts with ingredients when cooking is not dissimilar to the way water behaves in the body. It regulates temperature and maintains all bodily functions; when we breathe or move, we expel water, which must be replenished. In the same way, we can gauge a lot of things about food by looking at the state of the water during the cooking process. The difference between a simmer and a high boil, for instance, is vast and tells us how hot the food is. And when we introduce steam, we introduce pressure, which speeds up the cooking process:

When boiling, the liquid is in full motion, doing what it’s been wanting to do since you first introduced heat to the equation.

When water is in fast motion, it prevents the ingredients from sticking (think pasta) while cooking rapidly, meaning it won’t go all soggy, and because it cooks fast, it retains more flavour. 

Boiling for too long, however, undoes all that is good about food.

Great for: Pasta, rice, potatoes and green vegetables

There are three ways to poach things: submersion poaching (as you would an egg), shallow poaching (meringues are only partially submerged when making a floating island), and par-poaching (when the ingredients are cooked halfway and then placed in the poaching liquid to cook further). You can use many liquids when poaching, including water, wine, bouillon, milk, stock, butter, lemon juice or broth, but acid is often added to the liquid if it isn’t already acidic, as well as herbs and spices for added flavour.

Great for: Eggs, fish (especially fatty fish, like salmon), chicken, asparagus, carrots or potatoes, as well as shellfish, like prawns.

Simmering is like boiling, but more of a tease, and a much slower process. It’s when the water starts to move – just below boiling point – but the bubbles don’t break to the surface, even though they’re trying to. 

Meats that are simmered, for instance, retain more flavour and a soft, flaky texture than when they are boiled. Simmering is also a great way for “cooking out” the fats in a stock that turn it cloudy.

Great for: Fibrous root vegetables, like potatoes, turnips and beets, as well as stocks.

Ideal for lightening up a meal, steaming is great for springtime cooking. It cooks food more gently than boiling or simmering, as the liquid never touches the food, so you won’t easily overcook or burn a dish. Ingredients also retain their shape, colour, flavour and texture better.

Great for: Asian classics (dumplings, fish) and almost every vegetable except the spongy kind (e.g. mushrooms or aubergines) or super tough ones, like root vegetables. Chicken breast and shellfish also respond well to steaming.

Low and slow are the operative words here. Braising is exactly the same as simmering, but you’re essentially cooking the meat in a small amount of water on low heat with the lid on, intensifying the flavour of the dish.

Great for: Cooking inexpensive, tough cuts of meat, like pork shoulder, but works wonders with a bland chicken breast as well.