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the toki pona cookbook manifesto

by lipamanka

First we must ask ourselves: what does it mean to cook in a language? Often when I cook, I don’t even use language. I just add the ingredients in the right order and do the right things to them and make something delicious. Of course the part of our brain that evolved for language is still used for this - the way I categorize words in english and the way I categorize spices are the same. But is this cooking in English? Or is it just cooking?

When cooking from a cookbook, it’s useful to have visuals. Cookbooks without words and only pictures have been made, so language isn’t needed for teaching cooking. However, language is a very valuable supplement to facilitate pedagogy in cooking (it helps teach cooking). So instead of thinking of a toki pona cookbook as a proof that you can cook using only written instructions, perhaps a toki pona needs pictures to be most effective, and that’s okay! So do cookbooks in other languages.

Second we must ask ourselves: what does it mean to cook at all? Does making toast count as cooking? Does making instant ramen count as cooking? Does opening up a yoghurt container count as cooking? What if you add a teaspoon of jam? What if you make your own jam and add it to store bought yoghurt? I’m sure everyone will draw the line differently, or not at all, but we need to remember this is all in the context of toki pona.

So what is cooking, in toki pona? Here’s my answer: cooking is something you do to make food. It’s a type of pali. Or perhaps a type of seli. Or some other toki pona word. But broadly, if you’re doing something that will lead to you eating, it doesn’t matter if it counts as cooking or not for a toki pona cookbook. For this reason, cookbooks don’t have to follow any anglophone concept of what “cooking” is. One recipe could be how to make stir fry from scratch, and the next recipe could be suggestions for what toppings to put on instant oatmeal. And something in-between might be baking a pie with a store-bought crust, or pancakes from a store-bought mix.

toki pona values the day-to-day, so a toki pona cookbook would describe what cooking might look like day-to-day. It wouldn’t be a book you pull out once every few weeks when you need to impress guests—it would be a book you learn from until eventually you can cook on your own. Its goals would be to be useful to the person using it, offer recipes from a perspective of healthy variation, and incorperate elements of cooking from around the world. For example, instead of measurements, it would describe the function of each ingredient, and the cook can learn how much of each ingredient they like. Or for baking, it would use ratios by weight.

I am Jewish, and I’m a heritage Yiddish speaker. One Yiddish phrase that comes up a lot in my life is “shit arayn.” “shit” means “put” and “arayn” means “in,” so this phrase literally means “put in.” But, similar to most Yiddish phrases that survived in non-Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities, such as my family, shit arayn has another meaning. My grandmother’s grandmother would scold my grandmother with “shit arayn” whenever she pulled out the measuring cups. Just put it in, don’t use measurements. Shit arayn. This is because in order to make delicious food, you don’t need to measure. In Jewish cooking, unless you’ve cooked it a dozen times already, every time you cook a traditional dish, it’s an experiment. Your chopped liver might come out a bit eggy, and you might like that! Your matseballs might be too firm to your liking, and you’ll know what you need to do to change that next time.

I’ve talked to lots of people from around the world, and while not universal, this “shit arayn” method of cooking is very common. It fits my experiences of day-to-day cooking, and I think it’s a good basis for a toki pona cookbook. Here is a list of design goals.

  1. No measurements. Instead of “one quarter of a teaspoon of salt,” add a chapter explaining what salt is and what it does and how to salt things properly. Instead of using measurments for baking recipies, choose recipies with simple ratios and demonstrait them visually (see point 2).
  2. Take advantage of visuals. Instructions in any language are suplemented well with visuals. In a toki pona cookbook, we can use visuals for the things we don’t want to use toki pona for. three drawings of cups of flower, two drawings of cups of sugar, one drawing of a cup of butter. None of it is labeled. If that type of notation might be confusing, write a chapter about it. Asside from that, visuals are also incredibly helpful if they illustrate the actions being described by the toki pona.
  3. Use sitelen pona. It just looks nicer. You could do it with Latin but like why? sitelen pona is just so much better. (It should be monospaced and either hand-drawn or using a font that follows the proportions in pu, for legibility sake. The typography of such a cookbook is incredibly important.
  4. Include all sorts of difficulty levels. Something as easy as “cottage cheese bowl” makes the cookbook immediately accessible. Slowly the recipes can get more complex until we have something like homemade dumplings. Recipes ramp up, and each one teaches a new skill.
  5. Incorporate elements of cooking from around the world with attribution. I find it very important for a toki pona cookbook to be globalist. toki pona is spoken around the world. Its speakers have a large variety of cultural practices.
  6. Have variable recipies. Some ingredients might be hard to get ahold of, so the recipes chosen should be able to use substitutes. For example, sago pudding, while delicious and amazing, might not be practical because sago isn’t accessible all over the world. Bunny chow might be a better choice because it can be made with meat or lentils or any other filling.
  7. Explain cooking concepts. Finally getting a grasp for cooking is an amazing feeling, but it doesn’t come from cooking directly from a strict recipe. toki pona encourages the day-to-day experience of humans, and by the end of the book a user should be able to take bits and pieces from different recipes and invent something new that tastes good.