Krish Ashok is very smart, funny and reminds me of one of those cousins who you meet after a long time, and can chat easily on any given topic and you will not notice time flying by.
He has a book out since Jan 2021 called Masala Lab: The science of Indian Cooking, which has food science, cooking and humor all thrown in for a good read.
When I was first introduced to Krish Ashok’s work by a twitter friend of mine, I was stunned to find a fellow food science enthusiast who likes to make flow charts for sambar and rasam (found in his Youtube channel) just like me.
A brief summary of the book:
The book is divided into 8 chapters:
- Zero Pressure cooking: Here Krish Ashok talks about how pressure cookers work and the science of cooking rice, wheat, vegetables, etc.
- Science of spice and flavor: Here, he talks about taste and flavor perception, and the science of salt, sugar, heat etc
- Brown, baby, Brown: He talks about Maillard browning in detail, a key science in developing flavors in any cuisine.
- Dropping acid: My favorite chapter, where Krish gets into the science of yogurt, tamarind, mango powder, etc
- Umami, Soda, Rum: He explains the science of baking soda and the usefulness of alcohol in cooking to extract flavors
- Taking it to the next level: For readers who are into experimenting, Krish introduces you to the world of sous vide, xantham gum, etc.
- Burn the recipe: He develops algorithms for rice, base gravies, chapathi, chutney and raita
- The Biryani: Here, the author separates out the layers and gives tips for the protein layer, rice layer, veggies etc.
My thoughts on the book
The book is funny!!
I love the everyday style of humor in writing that Krish maintains throughout the book. Examples include:
People regularly say, “I don’t want to eat anything that has chemicals in it. In that case, I’d advise them to fast indefinitely.”
This is funny and accurate…Because, in reality, there should be no such thing as “chemical free”, right?? Chemicals = stuff= everything.
And other fun observations like:
“People who leave cooked husks of whole spices in their dishes must be sentenced to life imprisonment” – I agree with that statement, provided I was not the one cooking that day :)!!
He calls out the ‘authenticity’ pundits
His rant on “authenticity” is spot on. He calls out folks who moan modernization by pointing out that Indian cuisine has constantly been adopting new ingredients into their cuisine for the past several centuries, if not more – be it cauliflower, carrot (so-called English vegetables) chilies or even tomatoes (from Portugese traders).
He argues for the need for increased documentation
Krish argues on why documenting is important. Indian food does not have a systematically way of documenting its process, which is unfortunate given India’s familiarity and dexterity in dealing with complex nutritional ingredients like turmeric, moringa etc and complex food processes like fermenting and sprouting of legumes, pickling, etc
I especially love this line in the book: “..in the kitchen, it’s the knowledge that counts. But, if you do not have that knowledge, you have 2 choices: spend decades experimenting and figuring it out yourself, [..] or translate collective wisdom into documented, practical knowledge.”
Again, preaching to the choir!! I cannot agree more… We shame some people into feeling that they just don’t have the instinct to cook when all we need is to provide the documents and tools to help our next gen succeed in the kitchen.
Acknowledging the uphill battle for women:
I am thrilled to say that this author is very sensitive to the fact that a vast majority of home cooking is done by women with little to no help or choice in the matter. So, while the author almost expresses child-like joy in spouting scientific facts, he specifically reminds his readers not to go spouting off these facts to an overworked mother and calls that attitude an exercise in ‘dilettantism’. I love that dual approach of being a nerd, yet retaining a sensitivity to the environment.
My favorite Chapter: Dropping Acid
I loved the chapter on “Dropping Acid”. In this chapter, he talks in great detail about the pH and specific qualities of tamarind, yogurt, amchur powder etc (ingredients unique to the Indian cuisine) that I have never seen before. He also explains the beauty of chaat in layering the different types of acids – starting with a base of chopped tomatoes and ending with a squeeze of lime almost poetically.
My minor criticism
It is hard to write a book. It is even harder to write a book on a topic that is new. I accept all that. Masala lab is a good book.
However I have 2 minor cribs that I wished to mention:
- Translating science into reality: I am a science nerd, so I love reading on specific heat, maillard reaction, science of spice and so on. But, for the home cook, who is looking to translate these concepts into actual dishes, I felt that the book belabored more on the science and less on the practical application of the science.
Krish mentions one of his goals with the book is to make cooking more streamlined, yet out of 8 chapters, only 2 chapters – Ch 7& 8 does he get into the nitty, gritty details on how to convert the science from theory to practice. Chapter 7 (‘Burn the recipe’) focused on rice, breads, gravy, chutney etc. Chapter 8 on Biryani was also great fun.
I wish he had expanded that concept in more detail similar to what he has on his Youtube channel where he explains wonderfully the science and art of sambar, rasam, etc. Maybe a book #2 is in the works…
- Making fun of online recipes: Now-a-days everyone who writes passionately needs some kind of Pinata to beat on. And who to easily beat on, with minimum pushback – but ‘online recipes’ a.k.a food bloggers? Krish talks about online recipes as this minefield of disinformation where young minds get easily confused with the various advice – e.g. how many whistles to cook, or that acids (do not) make the meat tender etc. That is disingenuous, I feel. Not just Krish, this is my pet peeve against folks who complain about food bloggers non stop: “Why do you write personal stories? Why don’t you just print the recipe? Why have you written 3 whistles, instead of saying whistles for 9 minutes…?”
Arre bhaiya, no one is forcing you to read recipes or watch videos. You are getting information for free and yet you sit and complain about bloggers. If not for all this info online, you will be either working off hand written notes from your mom in a dairy (remember those days!!) or buying (gasp!) recipe books. So, if a newly married 25 year old is attempting her first biryani and writing about it, it is not HER responsibility to check if the yogurt has made the meat tender, she is just excitedly documenting her version of the recipe.
Apart from these minor points, I definitely recommend this book, especially if you are a science geek like me.
I am excited to see this book do really well. This is a good indication that people are ready for simplifying and ‘algorithm-izing’ as Krish would say, of Indian Cuisine. And that, my friends, means exciting times lie ahead for all of us!!
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