What happens when you let a science geek loose in an Indian kitchen?
Why do puris puff only on one side when deep-fried? That’s just how they roll, says Chennai-based engineer Krish Ashok. The flat dough discs don’t have an inbuilt separator. “When it meets hot oil, the bottom of the puri gets hotter, more dehydrated, than the top. A dome of air puffs up into the thin, relatively cooler, more moist top. It’s why we push a puri down as it fries, to cook it evenly,” he says.
Ashok is neither a scientist nor a chef. But his new book Masala Lab (Penguin Random House) breaks down the science of Indian cooking. It’s practical and lively – one chapter, Burn the Recipe, offers clever hacks. Others explain the physics that goes into a great biryani, the perfect tadka. “Experienced cooks don’t need to know the science,” he says. “But for novices, it’s like a series of algorithms that accelerate the journey.” Excerpts from an interview.
What kind of “aha” moments does an engineer have when the kitchen is the science lab?
They’re mostly related to fat. While Japanese cuisine rests on a good broth, we’re all about getting flavours into the oil. It was amazing to learn that fats don’t really react with your food, all they do is transfer heat evenly, helping with browning and boiling at a higher temperature. I also learnt that the body processes fat by using bile to emulsify it. It’s fascinating to think my liver is turning all fat into a kind of mayonnaise!
Some myths and bits of received wisdom about our methods must have been hard to unlearn…
I’ve learnt that your grandmother is likely to be correct about techniques. It’s the misinformation on the internet, WhatsApp recipes and hacks that have done damage, spread pseudoscience and nutritional misrepresentation. It’s tough to convince people that microwaves retain more nutrients than stovetop cooking. Or that Himalayan pink salt, when you’re barely using 3 gm, is not better for you than regular salt.
You mention, at one point, that Indians don’t know how spices work. Shots fired! What do you mean?
Urban kitchens tend to use packaged powdered spices. But most spices oxidise and lose their aroma faster when powdered, unless you keep them frozen. You’ll always do better with freshly roasted and ground spices. Plus they have none of the stabilisers added to give powders a longer shelf life.
What can the graduating batch of pandemic-era home cooks learn, to avoid disaster?
Indian cooking on an induction stove is difficult because it requires small, continuous adjustments. You may need to take the pan off the heat occasionally for this. Also, the earlier you add spices to a gravy, the more flavour you lose. Apart from chilli powder and turmeric, you’ll fare better if you add less, later in the cooking.
Do any food techniques remain a mystery?
I’ve been experimenting for years to replicate at home the specific taste you get from a tandoor – to have that smoky, succulent meat has thus far proven impossible.