Digital dinners

Can a computer game teach us to cook? Yes, if you can afford it

I am useless at DIY. The reason is that, fundamentally, I am bored by it. Confronted by some fiddly task, I decide, like a petulant child, that I cannot be bothered. Many people feel that way about cooking. They may enjoy food, but they are not very interested in it as a subject.

Cookery books and television programmes are rarely of help to non-cooks. The conceptual leap from words on a page or pictures on a screen to their own culinary experience is too large. Perhaps what they need instead is a computer program, available in their own kitchens and talking them through recipes, step by step. The Nintendo cooking guide Can't Decide What To Eat? (for the Nintendo DS console) might offer the reassurance that even Delia cannot instil.

In an amusing piece in the Guardian, Johnny Dee kitchen-tested the Nintendo guide and claimed that it helped him, a hopeless cook, to produce dishes that his family praised as "actually pretty good" and even "delicious". The secret seems to be that, coming from a games manufacturer and formatted for a games console, the guide gives cooking a playful quality. There is something encouraging, too, about hearing instructions given in an actorly, "you can do this without any trouble" tone. The Nintendo is not going to give you a Gordon Ramsay-style bollocking.

Nintendo is not marketing the guide as an idiots' friend, however. The selling point is that it will give you new ideas and expand your repertoire. One of Nintendo's ads shows a woman and her children looking for something to prepare in 30 minutes, and deciding on . . . lasagne! The guide has some 250 recipes, which you can get to through their ingredients, or their countries of origin, or, as in this example, their cooking times. Once you have made your choice, the guide talks you through the recipe, step by step. You can tell it to move on to the next stage, so that you do not have to stick your greasy fingers on it - although the voice recognition can get confused by such sounds as the banging of pots. Make too much noise, and you might be told to put the dish in the oven before you've finished chopping the vegetables.

I cannot cook a meal of lasagne in 30 minutes, and I am not sure that I want to eat one assembled so rapidly, either. I might also give Nintendo's chilli con carne, made with Frankfurter sausages, a miss. Early adopters, however, appear to be very happy with the guide.

Is this the future of cookery instruction in the home? No. The drawback is the same as the one hindering ebook readers such as the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader. You might enjoy using these products, but you have to pay a price - in this case, £100 for a console plus £30 for the guide - to find out. Most people who are not techno-enthusiasts will stick with books, or takeaways.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism