Sunday, May 4, 2014

Cook "By Numbers" - Experience with Secret Ingredient

Recently I received a generous offer from the folks at Secret Ingredient to try out their products. In case you haven't heard of them, basically they are a company based in Hong Kong targeting those who love a home-cooked meal but either don't have the time nor the skill to make one themselves. Basically you order the dish online, and they deliver with all ingredients necessary with just the right portions to your home or office. All you need to do then is to follow the simple instructions, put everything in step by step in your own kitchen, and voila, you get a home-cooked meal done by yourself. Well, sort of. If you have played those "paint by numbers" kit growing up, it's basically a similar concept.

All ingredients were individually packed and clearly labeled in the right order
They let me to try out their Mother's Day Special Menu, which will be available for order and delivery next week. Basically it's a 2-course set with Pan-fried Pink Snapper with Chickpeas, Kale and Pancetta Fricassee as main course, then a heart-shaped cherry crumble pie as dessert. (Note: ok, Secret Ingredient did advertise this as a "3-course" meal but I personally think it's kind of a stretch by most people's understanding of a dinner course) It came as a set good enough for 2 people. The ingredients arrived in a chilled paper bag, nicely wrapped and packed, at my office within the agreed time-slot. I opened the bag when I got home, and inside there were all the ingredients wrapped in paper bag or in small plastic containers, along with the cooking instructions.

Marinate the fish lightly by rubbing the spices on top, then pan-fried. At the same time, chickpeas were sauteed with pancetta and mixed with kale. Easy-piecy.
Okay, here's a little confession. At the end I didn't actually cook myself - my wife did. So this is more a review from a spectator's viewpoint and I got to taste the final product. Basically all she did was to follow the instructions by the book. The steps were straight forward, and all ingredients were individually packed and clearly marked in order so it's easy to go along. I think anyone with some basic kitchen skills and common sense would be able to master this.

Looked quite professionally done to me!
And I got to say the end result was pretty impressive. Well it did take only 15 minutes from start to finish - well, we spent a little bit more time because we playfully want to plate it nicely. The dish was actually delicious and looked professional. The skin of the snapper was nicely charred, meat succulent and juicy (and well-cooked), and the sides (chickpeas, pancetta and kale) were flavorful.  I could live with a little more seasonings in the fish but that's just a personal taste - not that the fish's bland or anything. You could argue it's hard to go wrong with such combination - but that's exactly the point - the menu was well thought of to be fail-safe even for amateur cooks.

What's not to like about a cherry crumble pie? Sweet, tart, buttery, crunchy, YUM!
After our main course, we unwrapped the cherry crumble pie from the refrigerator. We couldn't find the instructions for this in our package, so we just reheat in the oven at 180C for 10 minutes. I think in their website they did mention none of the dish required oven (since not everyone in Hong Kong has an oven at home) so I suppose the pie can be eaten chilled as well. A partner company called Tai Tai Pie Pies made the pie for them and it's delicious with good balance of sweetness and tartness.

Overall I think it's an excellent concept. Not too many people cook at home these days because of the trouble and time required for shopping and preparing for ingredients, and Secret Ingredient offered them an alternative to create an excellent meal with minimal effort and time. It didn't quite replace the satisfaction of cooking something from scratch, but I could imagine for people who don't usually cook, it's an easy way to achieve enviable results, and it saves money too since everything's provided so there's no need to stock even basic items like oil or salt or herbs - I saw people spending hundreds of dollars on those in supermarket just for an occasional meal at home.

I am also impressed with the convenience this brought and the food quality as well. Everything's prepared and pre-cut/pre-washed so we literally only needed to unwrap and throw that into the pan. And the food - in my case the fish and the vegetables - looked and tasted fresh to me. Probably the on par with the quality you would expect from other high-end supermarkets in town.

But on the flipside, I think they probably should do something to minimize the packing materials required. Well in their defense they did try to use recycled materials as much as they could, but still, at the end we have to throw all those paper bag and plastic containers away which I think doesn't do the environment much good. And this somewhat took away part of the fun in cooking too. To me brainstorming, shopping and prepping were all part of the cooking process but by using pre-set menu with ready-made ingredients, those parts were done for you already. All we did was basically reheating. True it was quick and fail-safe, but it just didn't feel the same.

So even though I probably won't be their most regular customers, I can see why people like them and they should. Secret Ingredient delivered what they promised and did that well. Thanks so much for the meal and the opportunity to try this out!

Secret Ingredient website:

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