‘Those who write recipes forget the role of biochemistry in it’
February 21, 2021 2:15 AM
There is also a growing scientific recognition of the advantages of meditation and also the curative properties of traditional ingredients such as turmeric.
The only reason there are more professional male chefs is the fact that women were relegated to cooking at home and not as a career till very recently, and even now, vast swathes of the country place restrictions on what kinds of careers women can take up.
By Reya Mehrotra
When a science nerd starts discovering the whys and hows of cooking, he makes the kitchen his lab. And that’s exactly what Krish Ashok did. A software engineer by profession and a musician and chef by hobby, Ashok’s book Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking is a scientific exploration of the art of cooking. In his book, Ashok calls cooking a blend of art and craft that has a lot of science behind it. At the virtual debut of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Ashok spoke with Reya Mehrotra about his love for cooking, common myths about food and India’s rich culinary tradition, among other things.Edited excerpts:
I have been cooking since I was a teenager, and as the eldest among three boys with a working mother, she taught me to cook as soon as she could trust me to not blow up the kitchen. But it was when I went to live in the US for almost seven years that I started cooking for myself daily. I used to try and document recipes from the older folks in my family and realised pretty early that they don’t think in terms of precise recipes, but more in terms of general heuristics that one can learn to adapt and cook on-the-go instead of being tethered to some impractical notion of authenticity or tradition. The software engineer in me has always marvelled at this kind of flexibility in home cooking and the book is, in some sense, a tribute to the fundamentally algorithmic nature of cooking in this part of the world.
How do you manage your time between work and love for cooking?
As someone who has always had multiple hobbies—I play the violin, cello and guitar and also write columns in addition to cooking and food science—the ability to engage in what I call “continuous partial attention” is a skill that I particularly cultivate. The pandemic has offered me the opportunity to spend more time on these hobbies and, in fact, the book itself was written in the early stages of the pandemic.
Home kitchens have long been viewed as a female space, while the culinary industry is male-dominated. What is your take on kitchens as gendered spaces?
We are very much a patriarchal society, which in combination with food restrictions being a central part of caste, community and religious identity in south Asia, has meant the long-term relegation of women to the role of homemakers. So the Indian kitchen has ended up becoming a gendered space and our upbringing keeps boys out of the kitchen. The only reason there are more professional male chefs is the fact that women were relegated to cooking at home and not as a career till very recently, and even now, vast swathes of the country place restrictions on what kinds of careers women can take up.
What is the dynamic like at your own home?
My wife and I both have our respective careers and so she cooks in the morning and I cook dinner. We share chores like washing up after cooking and buying groceries.
The lockdown period had many quarantine chefs experimenting at home. How was your lockdown like?
The pandemic allowed someone privileged like me to squeeze more time out for indulging in my love for cooking and writing about it. The book itself was written in the first few months of the pandemic. The lockdown also forced a rethink of our daily rituals and routines, and, at least in my case, I think it’s been for the good. We have been cooking and eating more at home, and also buying more organic, local produce from street carts and local farms than from large supermarkets. And there has also been the opportunity to be mindful and diversify our diets. I have a weekly calendar that outlines different cuisines for different days of the week, which also forces us to consume a greater variety of macro and micronutrient sources.
What is the most special dish that has been passed down to you through generations in your family?
Adai is a thick pancake made from a mix of legumes that my grandmother used to specialise in. It takes a lot of patience to make each one perfectly crispy and it’s something she used to make for her favourite grandchildren (essentially, all of them). The anecdote at the start of Masala Lab is a reference to this dish. It’s also a good way to get kids to eat multiple sources of vegetarian protein in a single dish.
What’s the most common myth about food you would like to bust?
I believe that nutrition and cooking are two different things, but tend to be combined in ways that are not very useful. While it’s natural to want to combine both, one can pursue flavour and nutrition in independent ways. What is very tasty is often not very nutritious, so it will always be a balance. We can’t just eat salads every day. People must stop believing in random sources of misinformation about food and only trust a professional like a doctor or a nutritionist when it comes to nutrition-related advice. If you can’t talk to an expert, then just eat what your grandmother ate, and the chances of something going wrong are much smaller.
When it comes to cooking (and this is strictly about flavour, not nutrition), there are several myths, but the one that I often like to highlight is that people believe that marinating meat for long periods of time will cause flavour to penetrate into it, but that’s not true as spices only stick to the surface of the meat and do not penetrate inside. In short, you don’t need to marinate any kind of meat for longer than 30 minutes. In fact, brining the meat in a salt solution for an hour ahead of marination does the task of getting flavour (salt) into the meat and keeps it juicy and succulent during the cooking process.
India’s food scene is a vibrant mix of cultures and cuisines that have evolved with times. With Indian herbs and recipes reaching far and wide, do you think apart from being the ‘pharmacy of the world’, India must be named the ‘kitchen of the world’?
As a growing economic power since the liberalisation of the economy in 1991, India’s soft power has clearly grown around the world—entertainment, spirituality and food are clearly three of the big soft power exports from this part of the world. There is also a growing scientific recognition of the advantages of meditation and also the curative properties of traditional ingredients such as turmeric. The spectacular success of the Indian pharma industry, having become a major player in affordable healthcare, is clearly another thing worth celebrating. That said, it is important to recognise that one of the most astonishing aspects of food culture in the subcontinent is its relentless and constant evolution and adaptation with time. So, rather than try and claim that it is some ancient idea of Indian food that is now becoming popular, one has to realise that nothing in what we call Indian food today was the same even 50 years ago. Chillies, tomatoes and potatoes were introduced by colonial powers. A whole range of north Indian cooking techniques and dishes are the result of fusion of cuisines from central Asia with local traditions, and these have produced dishes like biryani that are now exemplars of the syncretic nature of food in this part of the world. In general, I do not like glorifying one cuisine over another because flavour perception is a deeply personal and individual experience, but I can confidently say that no other cuisine in the world has absorbed these many external influences and has grown richer with every passing century.
Now that your book is being talked about, what are your future plans?
There are a lot of things going on at the moment, but I have not decided on anything yet. I am still working on ideas for my second book.