The food writer-photographer marries his training as a molecular biologist with his experience as a cook
Los Angeles-based Nik Sharma effortlessly dons the hats of food writer, photographer and scientist. A captivating blend of Blumenthalian gastronomy and (Sanjeev) Kapooresque simplicity, Sharma’s food creations are based on one philosophy — flavour comes first. With his new cookbook, The Flavor Equation, he has invested in trying to understand, and helping us understand, why our grandmother’s or favourite aunt’s food tastes the way it does. What are those simple elements and ingredients that help to produce tasty food every single time? Excerpts from an interview:
Where does your understanding of flavour come from?
Flavour is something we all experience through our own lens but what makes it individualistically unique is the way our cultures and emotions tinged with our memories come into play. It affects how we perceive aromas, tastes, textures, sights, and sounds when we try a dish. Growing up in Mumbai, and then later moving to America, made these concepts much more obvious because it was an opportunity to compare and contrast the differences and similarities across these two different parts of the world.
Tell us about the creative process behind ‘The Flavor Equation’. Where did you start from?
The Flavor Equation is part science text, part cookbook. When I started to work on the book, I sifted through science books, recipes, research papers, and even my old school notes that I still keep stacked away. The recipes in the book serve as illustrative examples, similar to a lab experiment, that highlight and explain the science behind our actions in cooking. Of course, the end results are much tastier since this is food!
What has been your personal connection with food? At what point in your life did cooking become a source of comfort or a personal project of sorts?
While I cooked for many years, cooking as a storytelling medium became much more prominent when I entered academia. I worked as a researcher during the day and went to school in the evening. Cooking became a refuge, a place where I could simply relax and have fun but also express myself.
It led to the start of my blog, ‘A Brown Table,’ and that became a platform to develop my writing and photography and also to share recipes and talk about the food I’m interested in cooking and eating. Much of my writing is influenced by the work of food writers like Diana Henry, Nigella Lawson, Niloufer Ichaporia King, Julie Sahni, Nigel Slater, and others. There are Indian recipes, a lot of Goan food, but also recipes that are an amalgamation of my experiences living and growing up in two different parts of the world.
Over time, the blog started to receive attention and I realised that cooking and writing about it made me happy. I woke up excited every morning looking forward to spending time in the kitchen. Eventually, I left my job in pharmaceutical research to work as a pastry cook in the San Francisco Bay Area. After that, I worked as a food photographer for a start-up and soon got a chance to write a food column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Writing for the newspaper led to newer opportunities and also made people sit up and take notice of my work.
Acidity, sweetness, heat… Is there one flavour profile you turn to often in your cooking?
I’m definitely a ‘sweet and sour’ type of person. When I cook, that combination tends to make most tastes shine beautifully. For instance, any type of chaat with the jaggery/ dates/ tamarind sauce, or like a tart lemon ice cream. In summer, when my husband and I grill a lot of food, I often add amchur and jaggery to barbecue rubs. It’s a game changer.
What do you make of the impact the pandemic has had on our food and eating practices?
The pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns revealed how much I took for granted: from the simple acts of shopping for produce at the farmers’ market or grocery stores to eating out at restaurants and travelling. With those avenues unavailable, I turned to books and documentaries more than ever before to learn more about food, culture, places, and people.
Also, attitudes towards cooking at home have changed and I think it’s one of the few positives to come out of the global pandemic. I often get emails from parents, about their young children who have started to cook from my books and use the recipes as a way to learn about science, cultures, and people.
Another wonderful thing to have happened is the reduction in food wastage. In fact, some of the recipes in The Flavor Equation — the debittering of olive oil and the oven-baked “fries” — rely on the science gleaned from food waste research. In the case of the debittering of olive oil, I found I could apply the method of extraction to remove certain substances from olive tree waste to debittering the oil — the chemicals were exactly the same. For the fries, I came across a research paper that was trying to increase the yield of pectin from potato waste and I realised the same technique could be used to make a potato fry crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside simultaneously.
Your food is a happy amalgamation of East and West. How mindful are you of what you bring to the table as a person of colour?
While I don’t ascribe to the notion that food always brings people together, it does possess the powerful ability to do so. I cook with my soul and share the food I love, and I hope people will not just enjoy the food but also the stories behind these recipes. Food is a tool I use to tell my story and share the experiences that shape me.
Your first book, ‘Season’ (2018), told the story of your journey from India to the U.S. What was the motivation behind ‘The Flavor Equation’?
The Flavor Equation marries my training and experience as a molecular biologist and a cook. While my first book, Season, was much more personal and told people who I am, The Flavor Equation tells you how I think, how I work with flavour in my cooking. I want people to cook food that tastes great but also know why things work or why they don’t. There are a myriad opinions on food and this book in a way tells you why — it’s culture, geography, but also science.
Snapshots from ‘The Flavor Equation’ by Nik Sharma.
Your food photos are stark, and you’ve spoken earlier about showing your brown hands in your images. When did this simple act become political? How important is it for you to put yourself out there?
My style of photography represents the way I see food and want it to be seen. It is my point of view. I want people to see themselves cooking the food I cook, so they feel comfortable attempting my recipes. That’s the reason I began to photograph myself cooking.
I had also noticed how a lot of American media outlets always depicted only light-skinned people in their photos — be it a food gathering, in a cookbook or a magazine, or even on products. None of them seemed to represent dark-skinned people, either by omission or maybe they just didn’t care enough. For my blog, I didn’t need anybody’s permission to shoot food the way I wanted to. At the time, photo curating sites were all the rage and often the images that showed my hands would evoke negative reactions because “food and hands” was “forbidden”. I knew I’d lose traffic to my blog but it also didn’t feel right to adhere to something I didn’t believe in. I stuck to my style and people noticed. Things are different now than they were six years ago but I often wonder, why did it even have to come to this?